Closing arguments due in Charlottesville car crash murder trial

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Jurors in the murder trial of James Alex Fields are expected to hear closing arguments Thursday, after two final defense witnesses take the stand.

The defense acknowledges Fields crashed his Dodge Challenger into a group of counter-protesters on Aug. 12, 2017, after police had ordered the Unite the Right rally that Fields attended in Charlottesville to disperse. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed, and dozens of other counter-protesters were injured.

However, in opening statements, and through its witnesses and cross-examination, the defense is challenging the prosecution’s assertion that Fields drove from Ohio to Charlottesville full of anger and intent on engaging in a violent confrontation.

Thursday morning, University of North Carolina assistant professor Dwayne Dixon testified for the defense.

Dixon — a self-avowed anti-fascist — testified he was in Charlottesville with a group called Redneck Revolt, which he said was providing security at the rally for counter-protesters.

Dixon testified he saw Fields’ Dodge Challenger three times that afternoon — the third time on 4th Street. Dixon was wearing an AR-15, with the barrel pointing down.

As the Challenger drove by, Dixon said he stepped off the curb, between two cars, and yelled, “Get the (expletive) out of here.”

Dixon said he couldn’t tell who was driving the car, because of its tinted windows. He said he didn’t notice any damage to the car in the minutes before the crash. He said the driver “slowly accelerated away.”

Dixon testified that he posted about the incident on Facebook after Fields was identified as the suspect in the case. In the social media post, and in later speeches, including at Harvard, Dixon claimed he’d “shooed” Fields away.

In opening statements, the defense told jurors Fields “feared for his safety and was scared to death” when he drove his car into the crowd.

One of the people on the list of potential witnesses is Fields’ mother, Samantha Bloom. Jurors heard her voice earlier in the trial, during the prosecution’s case, in jailhouse phone calls with her son.

During the phone conversation several months after the crash, Bloom was critical of Fields’ comments about Heyer and her mother, Susan Bro. Fields called Bro “a communist” and “the enemy.”

What the jury doesn’t know is that shortly after Fields was identified as the suspect in the crash, Bloom told reporters she had no idea that the rally her son had traveled to in Charlottesville involved white nationalism.

While Bloom has been present in the courtroom during the trial, family members of defendants are often saved as witnesses until the sentencing phase, if there is a conviction.

Wednesday, a crash reconstructionist with the Virginia State Police testified he was unable to pinpoint how fast Fields was going when he crashed into protesters and a stopped car in front of the protesters, but the speed was less than 28 mph. The air bag in Fields’ car did not inflate.

Fields faces a total of 10 counts in the trial. In addition to Heyer’s murder, he is charged with eight counts of malicious wounding and one count of failing to stop after the fatal crash.

If convicted of the most serious charge, Fields could face life in prison.

Fields has also been indicted on federal hate crime charges, which carry the possibility of the death penalty.

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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