November 26, 2018 / 11:10 AM / 12 days ago

Trial begins for man charged with murder at Charlottesville rally

(In this November 26 story corrects name of victim in fourth paragraph)

By Gary Robertson

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) - Jury selection began on Monday in the trial of the man accused of killing a woman by driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year.

James Fields Jr., a 21-year-old Ohio resident, faces 10 criminal counts in Virginia, including first-degree murder and malicious assault. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which could send him to prison for the rest of his life.

Fields was among hundreds of white nationalists who converged on the town, home of the University of Virginia, to protest plans to remove a statue of a Confederate war hero from a local park.

The white nationalist demonstrations, highlighted by a march across campus by men carrying flaming torches and chanting anti-Semitic and racist slogans, prompted clashes with counterprotesters. Afterwards, Fields plowed his vehicle into counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others, prosecutors say.

One of his attorneys, John Hill, told prospective jurors that the defense would present testimony showing the defendant thought he was acting in self-defense. Hill also told them to expect medical and mental-health testimony.

Federal prosecutors have said that Fields routinely promoted racial ideologies on his social media accounts and expressed support for Adolph Hitler and the Holocaust.

After the rally, U.S. President Donald Trump faced intense criticism when he seemed to equate the white nationalists with the counter-protesters, saying there were “very fine people on both sides.”

On Monday, Fields appeared calm after entering a heavily guarded Charlottesville Circuit Courtroom wearing a dark suit, dark-rimmed glasses and a light-colored tie. As jury selection began, he frequently turned toward the audience in the courtroom.

Circuit Court Judge Richard E. Moore told a large group of prospective jurors that the trial could last up to three weeks.

In June, the U.S. Department of Justice said it was also indicting Fields on 30 federal hate crimes charges, for which he could face the death penalty if convicted. Fields also pleaded not guilty to the federal charges.

On Monday, Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joseph Platania emphasized to prospective jurors that prosecutors were not seeking a death sentence on the state charges.

Slideshow (3 Images)

Charlottesville has been on edge since the white nationalist rally. On Monday, three police officers stood guard outside the red-brick courthouse on High Street. Authorities closed a side street near the courthouse for security reasons.

Judge Moore said 12 jurors and four alternates would be chosen to hear the case, which could last until Dec. 13.

Jury selection is expected to continue Tuesday, with opening arguments later this week.

Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Dan Grebler

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