CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) – An Ohio man charged with killing a woman during a white nationalist rally in Virginia plans to argue that he believed he was acting in self-defense when he drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.
A lawyer for James Alex Fields Jr. offered a glimpse of the defense strategy as jury selection began Monday in Charlottesville, 15 months after this quiet Virginia city became a flash point for race relations in the U.S.
The “Unite the Right” rally on Aug. 12, 2017, rally drew hundreds of white nationalists to Charlottesville, where officials planned to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds more showed up to protest against the white nationalists.
The two sides began brawling before the rally got underway, throwing punches, setting off smoke bombs and unleashing chemical sprays. Later, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed when a car authorities say was driven by Fields plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters.
Afterward, President Donald Trump enflamed racial tensions when he said “both sides” were to blame, a comment some called a refusal to condemn racism.
Fields’ attorney, John Hill, told a group of prospective jurors Monday the jury will hear evidence that Fields “thought he was acting in self-defense.”
Nearly all of the 68 prospective jurors in the first group to be questioned said they had read or heard about the case.
About 20 people said they had formed an opinion in it, but also indicated they could put that aside and decide the case based solely on the evidence presented in court.
Fields, now 21, was photographed hours before the attack with a shield bearing the emblem of Vanguard America, one of the hate groups that participated in the rally, although the group denied any association with him. One of Fields’ teachers has said he was fascinated by Nazism and admired Adolf Hitler.
Pretrial hearings have offered few insights into Fields. 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.
During jury selection Monday, Fields glanced several times at the crowd of prospective jurors in the courtroom and answered “Yes, sir” when asked introductory questions by Judge Richard Moore.
After asking general questions of prospective jurors, the judge, defense attorneys and prosecutors questioned individual jurors privately. By 2:30 p.m., only about nine people out of a group of 28 had been questioned.
Moore acknowledged the process is “slow going.”
“We’re trying to be as careful as we can for both sides of the case,” Moore said.
Fields’ lawyers had asked to move the trial out of Charlottesville, arguing that an unbiased jury could not be picked in the city so deeply affected by the violence. Moore did not grant the motion, but indicated it could be revisited if finding an impartial jury in Charlottesville proved difficult.
Star Peterson, whose right leg was virtually crushed by the car, has had five surgeries and still uses a wheelchair and cane. She sat quietly in the courtroom Monday watching the proceedings as a friend comforted her. Peterson declined to comment.
Moore said 12 jurors and four alternate jurors will be chosen. The trial is expected to last about three weeks.