Appeals court upholds James Alex Fields Jr.’s murder conviction in Charlottesville car attack

The Virginia Court of Appeals has denied James Alex Fields Jr.’s appeal, upholding his murder conviction for driving a car into counterprotesters during the 2017 Unite the Right Rally, in Charlottesville.

Fields, 24, is serving a life sentence in the death of Heather Heyer, who was killed when the Ohio man drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd. Fields is also serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to federal hate crime charges.

Fields’ attorneys had argued before a three-judge panel that Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore had erred in several aspects of the trial, in which Fields was found guilty of first-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, and one count of leaving the scene of an accident.

In opinion written by Judge Robert Humphreys Tuesday, the appeals court upheld the conviction. Fields could now appeal to Virginia’s Supreme Court.

Fields’ lawyers had contended his trial should be moved from Charlottesville, both because of “the community trauma” and the significant pretrial publicity after his arrest.

Despite the widespread news coverage, the panel ruled most of the reporting was accurate, not inflammatory, and didn’t unfairly affect the jury pool. Pointing to the relative ease in seating a jury, “there was not such widespread prejudice against Fields that he could not obtain an impartial jury.”

The defense had said showing jurors a meme Fields had posted showing a car driving into a group of protesters was irrelevant because it happened three months before the Unite the Right Rally.

The high court disagreed: “Memes depicting a car driving destructively into a crowd of protesters constituted relevant circumstantial evidence that was probative of Fields’ intent due to the memes’ striking similarity to the act Fields committed.”

The appeals court said the circuit court’s admission a text Fields sent to his mother the night before driving to Charlottesville was allowable, despite it showing an image of Adolf Hitler. “The circuit court acknowledged that the image of Hitler could be prejudicial but permitted it to be admitted into evidence for the purpose of determining Fields’ intent, motive, and state of mind.”

Finally, the appeals court backed the lower court’s admitting recordings of phone calls between Fields and mother while Fields was in jail, awaiting trial. In the calls, Fields told his mother he had been “mobbed by a violent group of terrorists,” and had been acting in self-defense, and referred to Heyer’s mother as “the enemy.”

Fields’ attorney, Denise Lunsford, did not immediately respond to an email asking whether the conviction would be appealed to Virginia’s Supreme Court.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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