5 Questions Ahead of Alleged Charlottesville Killer's Murder Trial
James Fields' defense team reportedly plans to argue self-defense.
Charlottesville, Virginia, was thrown into chaos in August 2017 when white nationalists protesting the planned removal of a Confederate statue clashed with counter-protesters. One of those counter-protesters, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was killed when an alleged white supremacist drove his car through a crowd. More than a year later, 21-year-old James Fields Jr. is set to be tried for Heyer's murder.
Fields, who previously lived in Ohio but is currently being held without bail in a Virginia jail, is facing a total of 10 criminal charges in Charlottesville Circuit Court, the most serious of which is first-degree murder. Jury selection started today, and Judge Richard Moore has set aside a total of 18 days for the trial.
While it could be a while before the jury announces the verdict, here are five questions worth considering as the trial starts.
- How will the jury selection process go?
The Charlottesville Daily Progress reported there are 360 potential jurors. Why so many? Field's court-appointed defense attorney, Denise Lunsford, is worried about potential bias from the jurors, especially since the trial is taking place in the same city where Heyer was killed.
"Despite careful [jury selection], potential jurors' resilience in their attempts to move forward may easily develop into prejudice against Fields, a prejudice that will be unlikely recognized by those affected and difficult, if not impossible, to ferret out," Field's defense team wrote in a motion arguing that he should be tried outside of Charlottesville. Prosecutors disagree, instead proposing that the size of the jury pool be expanded to ensure there are no biased jurors. Moore seems to think this will work, though he said he'll reconsider the defense's motion if lawyers can't agree on an impartial jury.
The large pool means selecting 12 jurors and four alternates will take a while—two days, according to WVIR—as potential jurors are asked a series of questions to determine if they're biased. "Jurors could have an agenda, and you have to be careful and make sure that they are answering the questions truthfully," legal analyst Scott Goodman told WTVR. "You could have jurors with an ulterior motive and might want to sit on the jury to either hang up the jury or make sure Mr. Fields is found guilty."
- Will the trial devolve into a circus?
There's significant interest in any and all matters related to white supremacy. Last year's Unite the Right rally put the spotlight on Charlottesville, dominating the national conversation for weeks. This summer, when rally organizer Jason Kessler and a few dozen white supremacists marched in Washington, D.C., thousands of counter-protesters also showed up, as did plenty of reporters.
All this to say that a lot people are interested in Fields' fate. Joe Rice, deputy communications director for the city of Charlottesville, told the Daily Progress that over 100 media personnel are expected to cover the trial in person.
Officials have therefore released a "Media & Security Plan" for Fields' trial. Reporters and other observers are not allowed to bring electronic devices into the courtroom. Purses and bags are also completely banned in the courtroom itself. Officials have set up a remote viewing center where reporters can watch the case unfold, as well as a media staging area and media operations center.
- How will Fields defend himself?
At first, it was unclear whether Fields had entered a plea at all, according to CNN. In recent days, moreover, no one seemed to know for sure what his defense would be. As the Associated Press noted, Fields' defense team provided very little by way of public comment, and pretrial hearings didn't help much either. The AP reported:
Pretrial hearings have offered few insights into Fields or his motivation. A Charlottesville police detective testified that as he was being detained after the car crash, Fields said he was sorry and sobbed when he was told a woman had been killed. Fields later told a judge he is being treated for bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression and ADHD.
But during jury selection today, defense attorney John Hill suggested his client may have "thought he was acting in self-defense," The Washington Post reported. More details weren't immediately available.
Once the trial starts, prosecutors will likely show videos taken by witnesses of the car, a Dodge Challenger, ramming into the crowd of counter-protesters. While Heyer was the only person to die, dozens more were wounded.
- What will Fields' final fate be?
If convicted, particularly on the murder charge, Fields could be sentenced to life behind bars. But he's also facing 30 federal charges from the Department of Justice, which claims his actions were motivated by hate. On social media, Fields "expressed and promoted his belief that white people are superior to other races and peoples; expressed support of the social and racial policies of Adolf Hitler and Nazi-era Germany, including the Holocaust, and espoused violence against African Americans, Jewish people and members of other racial, ethnic and Religious groups he perceived to be non-white," the U.S. Attorney's office of the Western District of Virginia wrote in his case description, according to ABC News.
Reason's Jacob Sullum has previously pointed out that charging someone with federal hate crimes in addition to the counts they face locally raises constitutional concerns. In any case, Fields has pleaded not guilty to the hate crimes. A trial date has yet to be set, but a conviction on the federal charges could mean the death penalty.
- Will a final verdict(s) help Charlottesville heal?
"I'm not obsessed with him," Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, told the AP of Fields. "I feel like I've turned him over to the justice system. He's their problem, not mine." Still, Bro told NPR she prays "that justice prevails here."
Star Peterson, whose legs and spine were broken when the Challenger drove into the crowd, feels like she has a duty to testify at Fields' trial. "I need to do something for Heather other than just lay flowers at her grave and if I can be part of prosecuting the person who killed her then that's something I can do for her memory," she told NPR. Peterson acknowledged, though, that "there can't really be justice."
"We can't undo what's been done. We can't bring Heather back," Peterson said.