December 6, 2018 / 7:56 PM / a year ago

Virginia murder trial of white nationalist goes to jury

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) - The murder case against the man who drove his car into a crowd protesting a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was submitted to a jury on Thursday, capping a two-week trial in which the defendant declined to take the witness stand.

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

In closing arguments on Thursday, prosecutors said James Field, 21, was motivated by hatred toward the counter-demonstrators, while the defense argued that he was fearfully reacting to a violent situation.

Defense attorneys never disputed that Fields was behind the wheel of the Dodge Charger that sent bodies flying when it crashed into a crowd on Aug. 12, 2017, killing counterprotester Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring 19 others.

Instead, they suggested he was intimidated by a hostile crowd and acted to protect himself.

The deadly clash followed a day of tensions between white nationalist activists who had gathered in Charlottesville last August for a “Unite the Right” rally and groups of opposing demonstrators.

The night before, hundreds of white supremacists staged a torch-lit march through the nearby University of Virginia campus chanting, “white lives matter” and “Jews will not replace us.”

U.S. President Donald Trump drew condemnation from Democrats and Republicans alike for saying afterward that “both sides” were to blame for the violence.

The jury of seven women and five men was due to begin deliberations on Friday morning.

Urging jurors to find Fields guilty of murder and nine other charges, prosecutor Nina-Alice Antony said the defendant had no reason to be fearful in Charlottesville, and that he came to the rally from Ohio intending to harm others. Fields could face life in prison if convicted of murder.

Antony cited evidence presented earlier that Fields had exchanged cellphone text messages with his mother suggesting the counterprotesters would “need to be careful,” and sent her an image of Adolf Hitler.

Defense attorney Denise Lunsford countered that Fields’ behavior was defensive in nature, telling jurors: “James’ actions were impacted by everything else that was going on.”

Asking the jury to find her client not guilty of all charges, Lunsford said when he was arrested, Fields told police, “I’m sorry I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I thought they were attacking me.”

After his arrest, Fields broke down in tears at the police station upon learning he had killed someone, according to video shown to the jury.

Reporting by Gary Robertson in Charlottesville, Va.; Writing by Peter Szekely and Steve Gorman; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Lisa Shumaker

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