Jury selection underway in trial of self-professed neo-Nazi James Fields Jr.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — As jury selection began in the murder trial of self-professed neo-Nazi James A. Fields Jr., one of his lawyers hinted Monday that Fields’ defense could include a claim that he believed he was protecting himself when he allegedly killed a woman by ramming his car into another vehicle on a crowded street during a white supremacists rally here 15 months ago.
Questioning prospective jurors in Charlottesville Circuit Court, defense attorney John Hill suggested that the panel might hear during the trial that Fields, now 21, “thought he was acting in self-defense” when he allegedly crashed his 2010 Dodge Challenger intentionally at the Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12, 2017. The crash killed counterprotester Heather Heyer, 32, and injured 35 other people.
With more than 100 prospective jurors sitting in Judge Richard Moore’s courtroom Monday morning, Hill was questioning the first group of 28 Charlottesville residents in the jury pool. He asked whether any of them were familiar with self-defense law in Virginia. No one said yes.
There also was an indication that Fields mental state could be an issue in the trial. In listing 16 possible defense witnesses, another of Fields’ attorneys, Denise Lunsford, mentioned the names of several people affiliated with the University of Virginia’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry & Public Policy. The institute’s Web page describes it as a “program in mental health, forensic psychiatry, forensic psychology” and several related disciplines, including “forensic clinical evaluations.”
She also listed Fields’ mother as a possible witness.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania listed 40 possible prosecution witnesses, many of them law enforcement officers and emergency first-responders.
Fields, of Maumee, Ohio, near Toledo, is accused of first-degree murder in Heyer’s death. He also is charged with five counts of aggravated malicious wounding and three counts of malicious wounding for eight of the 35 injured people. The lethal incident climaxed a day of violent clashes involving hundreds of white supremacists and their opponents, an outpouring of racist and anti-Semitic hate that galvanized national attention on emboldened ethno-fascism in the era of President Trump.
Jury selection could take until midweek, followed by testimony and legal arguments extending into mid-December. In a sign that empaneling an impartial jury could be difficult, most of the prospective panel members in the group of 28 raised their hands when Judge Moore asked whether they were familiar with the mayhem that occurred during the rally.
When the 28 were asked if they had formed opinions about Fields’s guilt or innocence, 15 of them raised their hands. But all later indicated that they could put aside their opinions and render verdicts based strictly on the evidence in the case.