CHARLOTTESVILLE — In closing statements Thursday, Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina-Alice Antony sought to undermine the defense’s argument that James Alex Fields Jr. thought he was under attack and felt sorry for harming the protesters he struck with his car.
Defense attorney Denise Lunsford said videos of Fields apologizing to police and weeping in an interrogation room after learning that someone died in the crash show that he was genuinely sorry, but Antony said Fields did not have to drive his car into the crowd of people.
“He said he was scared of people attacking him, but we can look at that — there was no evidence that shows he is credible,” Antony said.
Fields, 21, is charged with first degree-murder in the Aug. 12, 2017, death of Heather Heyer. The Ohio man also faces eight counts of malicious wounding for injuries he caused to others in the incident.
The jury will begin its deliberations Friday morning.
The defense has argued that Fields feared for his life after attending the violent Unite the Right rally that day. Police declared the white nationalist gathering an unlawful assembly after an hour of pitched street violence consumed the downtown park where the rally was being held to protest the planned removal of a Confederate statue.
The jury must now determine whether Fields acted with malice and intended to kill and harm the protesters. Lunsford asked the jury to not find him guilty of anything more than voluntary manslaughter and unlawful wounding.
Antony noted that several witnesses testified that the counterprotesters’ march was joyful and markedly different from the scene earlier in the day.
Lunsford, however, said Fields and others remained cautious around the counterprotesters and were worried about the potential for further violence.
“There were two groups of people: peaceful, happy people and angry, violent protesters,” she said. “That difference is sometimes in the eye of the beholder.”
Three months before the rally, Fields posted to his Instagram account an image depicting a car slamming into a group of people with overlaid text that says: “You have the right to protest, but I’m late for work.”
Antony, the prosecutor, said the image gives the jury a “glimpse into his mind” the moment Fields saw the crowd of marching protesters as they approached Charlottesville’s downtown pedestrian mall.
“He was presented with an opportunity,” she said. “He seized it to make his Instagram post a reality.”
Antony said the Instagram post and an “almost sinister” text he sent to his mother the night before the rally, paired with an image of Adolf Hitler, are evidence that he held ill will against the counterprotesters.
In response to his mother counseling him to be careful, he replied: “We’re not the ones who need to be careful.”
Lunsford, however, argued that Fields was simply a brash 20-year-old, and that offensive memes and bravado are not necessarily evidence of bad intentions.
She noted that one of the defense’s witnesses, Edmund Davidson, said he saw a counterprotester at the rally carrying a sign that said, “This machine kills fascists.”
“Was that person thinking of doing that that day, or was he trying to convey another message?” said Lunsford, adding that Fields did not come to Charlottesville with any weapons or equipment.
While photos of Fields from that day showed that he at one point carried a shield and chanted homophobic slurs alongside members of a white nationalist group, Lunsford said Fields, like many others, was carried away by the tension.
Earlier in the day, one of the final witnesses in the case, Dwayne Dixon, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor who came to protest the rally, told the jury that he saw a vehicle similar to Fields’ Dodge Challenger circle a downtown park where counterprotesters were gathered sometime between 12:45 and 1:15 p.m.
After seeing it a third time, Dixon forcefully told the driver to “get the f--- out of here,” he said.
Dixon admitted to writing a now-deleted Facebook post in January describing the interaction, saying he “shooed” away Fields while holding a rifle sometime before the fatal car ramming two blocks away.
While the Facebook post has been the subject of conspiracy theories that claim Dixon chased Fields into the crowd, the prosecutor said Dixon may have mistaken Fields’ vehicle for someone else’s.
Witnesses who have testified in the case said Fields reversed away from the counterprotesters and was idling before hurtling toward the crowd. Fields told police that he thought there were people who were going to attack him from behind, but Antony said there has been no evidence to support that claim.
The prosecutor said the remorse that the defendant appeared to show in statements to the police may be misplaced or disingenuous, because recordings of two jailhouse phone calls between Fields and his mother show that he had little sympathy for the victims, as he angrily referred to them as “terrorists” and “communists.”
“Weigh the credibility of his statements. Think about that in light of the evidence and ask if they’re credible,” Antony said to the jury. “We know there was no one behind him.”