Judge: Trial in counterprotester’s killing will stay in Charlottesville — for now

WASHINGTON — A judge has ruled that the trial of the man charged with killing Heather Heyer when he allegedly drove his car into a crowd of people on Aug. 12, 2017, will remain in Charlottesville — at least for now.

Charlottesville Circuit Judge Richard E. Moore has taken under advisement a change-of-venue motion from the lawyers for James Alex Fields Jr., the man charged with driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heyer and injuring several others. In a motions hearing Thursday, Moore said he doesn’t find any “reasonable certainty” he’d be unable to seat an impartial jury when Fields’ trial on first-degree murder charges begins on Nov. 26.

Fields’ defense attorney — Denise Lunsford, the former commonwealth’s attorney for Albemarle County — had argued her client would be unlikely to get a fair trial, due to the constant reminders of the violence that occurred last summer during the Unite the Right rally and counterprotests.

“Unlike most cases in which time provides perspective and emotional distance from the events giving rise to criminal charges, the events of August 12 have not lessened emotions, provided the perspective of time or decreased attention on the events that unfolded on that weekend,” Lunsford wrote in the Aug. 14 motion.

Since Heyer’s death, Charlottesville residents and politicians have vowed to eliminate white supremacy. In countless news reports, Fields had been labeled a “white supremacist” and “neo-Nazi,” Lunsford said.

“Such calls to action inevitably and conclusively tie Fields and the actions with which he is charged to the ideals to be found against and/or eradicated,” wrote Lunsford. “The elimination of Fields, then, becomes a part of Charlottesville’s struggle to eliminate white supremacy.”

In addition, on June 27, Fields was indicted in federal court on 30 hate-related charges, including charges that can be punished with the death penalty.

Lunsford wrote: “The events of August 12 remain a daily presence in Charlottesville; reminders are constant.” The stretch of Fourth Street where Fields allegedly crashed into the crowd has been given the honorary designation of “Heather Heyer Way.”

The scene where Heyer died is just four blocks from the court where Fields is set to stand trial, his lawyer noted.

“While the events of August 12 have gained national attention, the trial of James Fields is an intensely local story,” Lunsford wrote. “In the City of Charlottesville, this is personal.”

In the introspection after Heyer’s death, Charlottesville has become synonymous with “racial menace,” Lunsford said.

“James Fields has become the poster child for eradicating the menace,” Lunsford concluded. “Justice for Fields, in such an atmosphere, will be tainted by prejudice.”

Citing other cases related to the Aug. 12 violence in which juries were easily seated, Moore said he believed Fields could get a fair trial.

While not closing the door completely on the change-of-venue request, Moore took the motion under advisement, without altering the Nov. 26 start of jury selection in Charlottesville.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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