CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — An Ohio man charged with killing a woman during a white nationalist rally in Virginia plans to argue that he believed he was acting in self-defense when he drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters.
A lawyer for James Alex Fields Jr. offered a glimpse of the defense strategy as jury selection began Monday in Charlottesville, fifteen months after this quiet Virginia city became a flash point for race relations in the U.S.
The “Unite the Right” rally on Aug. 12, 2017 rally drew hundreds of white nationalists to Charlottesville, where officials planned to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds more showed up to protest against the white nationalists.
The two sides began brawling before the rally got underway, throwing punches, setting off smoke bombs and unleashing chemical sprays. Later, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed when a car authorities say was driven by Fields plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters.
Afterward, President Donald Trump enflamed racial tensions when he said “both sides” were to blame, a comment some saw as a refusal to condemn racism.
Fields’ attorney John Hill told a group of prospective jurors Monday the jury will hear evidence that Fields “thought he was acting in self-defense.”
Hill asked if any of the prospective jurors believe using violence in self-defense is never appropriate.
Nearly all of the 68 prospective jurors in the first group to be questioned said they had read or heard about the case.
About 20 people said they had formed an opinion in the case. When asked if their opinion was so strong they could not put it aside and decide the case based only on the evidence, no hands were raised.
Fields was photographed hours before the attack with a shield bearing the emblem of Vanguard America, one of the hate groups that participated in the rally, although the group denied any association with him.
Pretrial hearings have offered few insights into Fields or his motivation. A Charlottesville police detective testified that as he was being detained after the car crash, Fields said he was sorry and sobbed when he was told a woman had been killed. Fields later told a judge he is being treated for bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression and ADHD.
Star Peterson, whose right leg was virtually crushed by the car, has had five surgeries and still uses a wheelchair and cane. She sat quietly in the court room Monday watching the proceedings.