November 29, 2018 / 1:44 PM / a year ago

Murder trial begins for driver in Virginia white nationalist rally

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) - The man who plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters at last year’s white nationalist rally in Virginia had every intention to kill, a prosecutor told jurors on Thursday as James Fields’ murder trial got underway.

FILE PHOTO: James Alex Fields Jr., (L) 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

“It was willful, premeditated murder,” prosecutor Nina-Alice Antony said in Charlottesville Circuit Court, where Fields, 21, is facing a possible life sentence.

Fields’ attorney, John Hill, said the Ohio man acted in self-defense after becoming frightened by the mass of people around his car.

“You will hear James tell officers he feared for his safety,” Hill said, referring to his client’s comments to police following the crash. “He was scared to death.”

Heather Heyer, 32, was killed in the incident, which capped two days of chaos in August 2017 when hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, to protest the planned removal of a Confederate statue from a public park. Two state troopers were also killed during the protests when their helicopter crashed.

The “Unite the Right” rally followed a Friday night demonstration when hundreds of torch-carrying men chanted anti-Semitic slogans.

U.S. President Donald Trump was heavily criticized for saying there were “very fine people on both sides” after the violence, seemingly equating the white nationalists with those who demonstrated against them.

Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, declined to return phone calls from the White House after Trump’s remarks.

The bedlam left lasting wounds in Charlottesville, which has been forced to confront its own complicated racial legacy after the violence.

But it also damaged the image of the “alt-right” movement, a loose alignment of fringe groups centered on white nationalism and emboldened by Trump’s 2016 presidential victory. In August, a one-year anniversary rally in Washington drew just two dozen participants amid thousands of counterprotesters.

Prosecutors called several victims to the witness stand as the trial’s first day unfolded, giving jurors a firsthand account of the terrifying moments when Fields’ car sent bodies flying through the air.

“It was like a war zone downtown,” said Marcus Martin, who suffered a broken leg and ankle.

Fields was photographed hours before last year’s attack carrying a shield with the emblem of a far-right hate group, and people who knew him in high school have said he expressed Nazi sympathies as a student.

Fields also faces separate federal hate crimes, which carry a potential death sentence. He has pleaded not guilty in that case as well.

Reporting by Gary Robertson; Writing and additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone, Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis

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