November 30, 2018 / 5:51 PM / a year ago

Driver in Charlottesville rally never braked, photographer testifies

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) - A photojournalist who took a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the car plowing into a crowd of counterprotesters during a white nationalist rally in Virginia last year said in court on Friday that no image in the series showed its brake lights on.

FILE PHOTO: James Alex Fields Jr., (2nd L with shield) is seen attending the "Unite the Right" rally in Emancipation Park before being arrested by police and charged with charged with one count of second degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of failing to stop at an accident that resulted in a death after police say he drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters later in the afternoon in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017.REUTERS/Eze Amos/File Photo

“I heard screeching tires and an engine revving as it sped past me up the street,” Ryan Kelly said, testifying at the trial of James Fields Jr., the white nationalist behind the wheel of the gray Challenger car that struck the victims, killing one and injuring 19 others.

“It was faster than any car I’ve seen on that street. It was speeding, going directly into that crowd,” Kelly said.

Fields, 21, faces 10 charges for his role in the violence at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, including for the murder of Heather Heyer, a counterprotester killed when the car struck, which was captured in widely seen videos.

Field says he acted in self-defense, terrified by the crowds near his car.

One of the victims, Jean Peterson, entered the courtroom with assistance and using a cane.

She said the moments before she was hit by the Challenger was a “celebratory and convivial” gathering of friends, as she described the group of counterprotesters she was with.

Then she felt two bumps going over her legs. The car was speeding over her. She said she remembered thinking that she ought to push herself out of the street.

“My legs wouldn’t work,” Peterson said. She is due for her sixth surgery soon, she testified. “I was a fast walker,” she added sadly.

Hundreds of white nationalists had gathered in Charlottesville to protest the planned removal a statue honoring the U.S. Civil War-era Confederacy from a public park. At a rally the night before the incident, they carried torches and chanted anti-Semitic slogans.

Responding after the violence, U.S. President Donald Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides,” drawing criticism from Democrats and fellow Republicans for equating the white nationalists with those who demonstrated against them.

Hours before driving into the crowd, Fields was photographed carrying a shield with the emblem of a far-right group, although the group later denied he was a member.

The government contends that Fields’ killing of Heyer was pre-meditated murder, which he denies. His trial is expected to last three weeks.

Tay Washington testified that she was caught up in crowds as she drove her car into downtown Charlottesville.

“I’ve never seen so many white people standing up for black people,” Washington, who is black, told the jury. “It was a ‘wow’ thing.”

Then there was noise, commotion, and a body landed on the hood of her car.

She hit her head on her steering wheel “and then kind of blacked out,” she said.

Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Bill Berkrot

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