James Alex Fields Jr. admits he drove the car that plowed into counter protesters at last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and wounding several others.
But Fields does not believe he should be held accountable for his actions that day. Why? Because at the time of the incident, his attorney said, Fields “was scared to death”.
Fields is accused of plowing his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of protesters during the August 2017 Unite the Right rally, killing Heyer and injuring several others. The incident followed a period of racially charged violence in Charlottesville and sparked national outrage, putting the country on edge.
"This case isn't about what he did," prosecuting attorney Nina-Alice Antony said in her opening statement. "It's about what his intent was when he did it."
Fields’ attorney agreed, saying it was not a “whodunit” but a matter of motive — but this is where the two sides disagree.
The defense attorney said Fields acted in self-defense.
"Ms. Antony is correct. This is not a whodunit case," said defense attorney John Hill in his own opening statement. "This is not about who drove that car."
Hill described counter protesters as acting hostile towards Fields, and claimed that his client saw one with a gun in his hands. Hill added that Fields said "he was scared to death" when he was apprehended by police.
The state’s witnesses, however, disputed the notion that it was a chaotic and dangerous scene that Fields happened upon that day in Virginia.
Their testimonies helped bolster the state's contention that the scene was peaceful right before Fields drove into the crowd.
Brian Henderson, a lifelong Charlottesville resident, testified that the car caught his left hip and sent him flying through the air. He sustained nerve damage to his left arm and several broken ribs. He still has difficulty lifting his arm and his mobility is limited, he said.
He went to the rally because he was unhappy that the Unite the Right Rally had come to his beloved city. He said the mood among counter protesters was celebratory because they had stood up to the rally attendees.
Another witness, who chose not to give her name for security reasons, said the same: the mood by afternoon was celebratory, as opposed to the tense atmosphere earlier in the day as the rally was in full swing.
All was fine until she heard screaming, she said. In the confusion she did not hear the impact of the car.
"Next thing I'm aware, I'm on top of the car," said the woman, identified as Lisa. "Next thing I know, I'm on the ground and people are helping me."
Along with the first degree murder charge he faces in the death of Heyer, Fields is also charged with five counts of malicious wounding, three counts of aggravated malicious wounding and one count of failing to stop at an accident involving death, CNN reported.
In addition, Fields faces federal hate crimes charges in a 30-count indictment.