After the jury returned a guilty verdict holding James Alex Fields Jr. criminally responsible for driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, survivors of and witnesses to the deadly collision took to the downtown Charlottesville streets.
They marched to the pedestrian walking mall, where some passersby applauded, and on to the corner of Fourth and Market Streets, near the spot where 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer died and multiple others were injured.
The verdict Friday night came as a relief, a moment to take back their city and return it to the funky, liberal enclave they perceived it to be before the racist rally
“This is the best I’ve been in a year and a half,” said Wednesday Bowie, whose pelvis was shattered after Fields hit her.
A jury returns to court Monday to weigh what sentence to recommend to Charlottesville Circuit Judge Richard E. Moore.
And, online, adherents of the racist "alt-right," white supremacists, neo-Nazis and racists were angry over the verdict, critical of the Charlottesville jury and the legal team that represented Fields. For them, the verdict also amounted to something normal from a system they found rigged from the start.
And many of them declared that the fight’s not over.
“If you’re fighting for your client, you object. Fighting everything on relevance grounds can be overkill—maybe you don’t want to give the impression that your client desperately *needs* to fight every scrap of evidence—but Fields needed way more of a fight from his attys,” tweeted Evan McLaren, once an officer with the white supremacist National Policy Institute who did not attend the trial.
Jurors heard testimony and evidence for six days before attorneys delivered closing arguments Thursday.
Fields’ attorneys never contested that he drove the car into the crowd, instead using a mélange of arguments, some of which were debunked by witnesses, to cast doubt on their client’s intent.
Defense attorney Denise Lunsford told jurors Thursday that Fields was trying to return to Ohio and even searched on his phone for directions back home.
While multiple witnesses testified during the trial that no one and no other vehicle was behind Fields when he drove into the crowd, Lunsford said Fields felt like he was being attacked by someone behind the car.
When police questioned Fields and told him about Heyer’s death, he broke down.
“He doesn’t say ‘I wanted to go home,’” Lunsford said. “He doesn’t say ‘I wish I’d killed more.’ He literally has no words.”
Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Nina Antony focused her closing arguments on Thursday on how deliberate Fields’ actions were just before and after he drove the 2010 Dodge Charger into the crowd.
Antony noted that Fields initially backed up over a brick pedestrian crosswalk and sat with the car idling for nearly 90 seconds. Then, Fields gunned the car forward, with a crash reconstruction expert estimating a top speed of 28 mph on the short street before he struck the crowd, killing Heyer and sending bodies flying.
Fields put the car in reverse and started back toward Market Street.
“It’s a straight shot back up Fourth Street,” Antony said.
She also focused the attention of jurors on a photo of the crash that captured Fields inside his car. Zooming in on his face, Antony noted that Fields stared straight ahead, stonefaced, at the crowd he just hit.
“That is not the face of someone who is scared,” Antony said. “That is the face of rage, of hatred. That is the face of malice.”
Jurors deliberated for about eight hours over two days before handing down the guilty verdicts on 10 charges.
The alt-right has long pushed a narrative that Fields didn’t kill Heyer and was under attack when he drove the car into the crowd.
Witness testimony and evidence presented over the course of eight days did little to persuade members of the white supremacist, neo-Nazi and alt-right communities of Fields’ liability.
“The reality: He is ‘guilty’ of nothing other than defending himself against a violent anti-White mob,” Gab user Volker Zorn posted.
Neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, who runs the Daily Stormer website, called the verdict “an absolute travesty.”
“And it is evidence that the justice system in America no longer works, and thus the entire government is illegitimate,” Anglin wrote of a trial he did not attend. “If they can put you in prison for murder only because of your political beliefs, you have no rights left, and you are simply waiting around for the government to start the mass round-ups.”
Richard Spencer, the self-described intellectual force behind the alt-right movement who had been scheduled to speak at “Unite the Right,” tweeted that the evidence presented at a trial doesn’t amount to enough for a murder conviction.
“I see a young man who was in a chaotic situation and panicked, but never intended to hurt anyone,” said Spencer, who also didn’t attend Fields’ trial. “I see a young man who’s been transformed into a devil and scapegoat by the media and justice system, which has abandoned facts and rational skepticism and descended into a religious-like state.”
Career racist and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke did several internet broadcasts on the trial, which he called a “Stalinist Kangaroo Court” that convicted Fields.
“All while the real terrorists go free!” Duke tweeted.
Matthew Parrott, the former number two of the Traditionalist Worker Party, called the trial “a sham.”
“There must be and there will be a vigorous appeal of this kangaroo court sham of a trial. It is not over,” Parrott tweeted after the verdict became public.
Jason Kessler, who organized “Unite the Right,” remained silent during and after the trial he also did not attend.
The spot on Fourth Street near the corner of Water Street where Heyer died has become a memorial to the 32-year-old paralegal.
Chalk writings and purple flowers mark the area, which the city has renamed “Honorary Heather Heyer Way.”
After the verdict, someone wrote in chalk on the sidewalk “Justice” and “We (heart) you Heather.”
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, and Fields’ mother, Samantha Bloom, each left the courthouse quickly and quietly after the verdict.
For many of the victims and survivors of Fields’ attack, the verdict proved to be a relief after two weeks of tense days in court.
Several made their way downtown the night of the verdict, singing, celebrating and rejoicing that the legal system worked.
Jeanne “Star” Peterson, whose right leg was crushed when Fields’ car struck her, described the trial as hard, as witnesses testified in very personal terms about being injured. But knowing that Fields is being held accountable for his actions makes all the difference, Peterson said.
“I didn’t realize I was carrying this lead weight around since the car attack and I just feel really, really light,” she said.
Molly Conger, a Charlottesville activist who produced a daily podcast about the trial for a local radio station, had a simple reaction to the verdict.
“The jury figured it out,” Conger tweeted.
The Fight Continues
Jurors will return to Charlottesville Circuit Court on Monday to hear victim impact testimony. The jury will then make a sentencing recommendation to Judge Richard E. Moore. Fields faces from 20 years to life in prison for the murder and aggravated malicious assault charges.
Formal sentencing will take place in two to three months.
And the legal fights are far from over.
Fields faces a federal hate crimes criminal trial stemming from the incident. If convicted, Fields could be sentenced to death in that case.
And a federal jury is scheduled to hear a civil lawsuit stemming from the “Unite the Right” rally brought by multiple Charlottesville residents alleging a conspiracy by rally organizers and participants to commit violence.
That trial is scheduled for July 8 through Aug. 2.
Fields is a defendant in that trial as well.
Those proceedings will give witnesses and victims a chance, once again, to tell their stories.