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How the 'Unite the Right' murder trial helped debunk alt-right myths

Within hours of the arrest of neo-Nazi sympathizer James Alex Fields Jr. and the death of 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the racist “alt-right” began spinning conspiracy theories about the collision that killed Heyer and wounded multiple other people.

Like all conspiracy theories, they didn’t hold up to scrutiny. Testimony and evidence at the first-degree murder trial of Fields, who a jury found guilty on Friday, debunked all the theories with facts and first-hand accounts of what happened Aug. 12, 2017.

Here’s a look at four of the most prominent conspiracy theories and the facts and eyewitness testimony that undercut each one:

1. How did Heather Heyer die?

Conspiracy theory:

Heyer died of a heart attack that day. Some in the alt-right even floated the theory that she wasn’t at the scene where Fields struck a crowd of counterprotesters.

Who helped spread it:

Andrew Anglin, who produces the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, pushed this theory hard.

“Eventually, James Fields will get off on reckless driving and we’ll all know Heyer died of an unrelated heart attack, but it will be too late,” Anglin wrote in one of several posts on the subject a year ago on Gab, an alt-right social media network that is popular with conspiracy theorists.

Bradley Dean Griffin, who posts on the “Occidental Dissent” website as Hunter Wallace and is a key member of the neo-Confederate League of the South, also pushed the false theory.

“I can’t tell if Heather Heyer was injured by the car crash any worse than anyone else particularly when Fields put the Challenger into reverse when it was under attack by baseball bats,” Griffin wrote in a Sept. 7, 2017 post, which also peddles other undercut theories.

How the trial debunked the theory:

Virginia’s assistant chief medical examiner Dr. Jennifer Bowers, the assistant chief medical examiner for Virginia, said Heyer died from massive blunt force trauma to the torso after being hit by a car.

Multiple photos show Heyer at the scene when Fields slammed into the crowd of counterprotesters. Her blood was found on four spots on Fields’ car.

Heyer had multiple internal injuries, and the main artery leading from Heyer’s heart was beyond repair.

“It was snapped in half,” Bowers told jurors during the trial.

This theory is still being floated among alt-right users of Gab and Twitter.

2. Who drove the car?

Conspiracy theory:

A Michigan man drove the car into the crowd of counterprotesters, not Fields.

Who helped spread it:

The pro-Trump trolling website GotNews pushed and perpetuated this theory initially, and others, including failed neo-Nazi congressional candidate Paul Nehlen picked it up and tweeted it. The story caught fire in right-wing media, prompting multiple death threats to the Michigan man and his family.

GotNews, run by Charles “Chuck” Johnson, a figure in the racist alt-right who reportedly served as an informal adviser to Donald Trump’s transition team, folded earlier this year. It has settled a lawsuit with the Michigan man and his family.

Several others named in the suit, including Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, have also settled. Nehlen remains a defendant.

How the trial debunked the theory:

Fields drove the car into the crowd and was arrested by police officers and sheriff’s deputies shortly after leaving the scene. Multiple photos and videos show Fields behind the wheel of the car.

Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Nina Antony, in ending her closing argument at the trial, even zoomed in on a picture of Fields’ face behind the wheel of the car.

“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.”

The Michigan man once owned the vehicle, but it had been sold several times before Fields took possession of it. The main proponents of this theory dropped it after Fields’ arrest.

3. Was Fields under assault when he drove into the crowd?

Conspiracy theory:

An angry mob of counterprotesters had attacked Fields as he drove on Fourth Street toward Water Street, where a large group of people had assembled before the crash. Fields himself even pushed this idea in statements to police after being arrested.

Who helped spread it:

Fields told officers: “I didn’t want to hurt people, but I thought they were attacking me."

In a phone call in March with his mother, Samantha Bloom, Fields said he thought he was under attack.

“I went all my life doing nothing wrong and then I get mobbed by a violent group of terrorists,” he said.

How the trial debunked the theory:

There are multiple videos, numerous photos and dozens of witnesses to the attack. No “violent group” or even anyone just walking along the street shows up in any video or pictures behind Fields’ car before he gunned it up to 28 mph and slams into the counterprotesters.

A security video from the nearby Red Pump Kitchen restaurant captured Fields backing his car up, then idling. No one is seen on the video behind the vehicle.

Michael Webster, a Charlottesville resident on the way to lunch with his girlfriend that day after “Unite the Right” dispersed, saw Fields’ car on 4th Street approaching the pedestrian mall, but nothing else near him.

“Basically, a ghost town,” is how Webster described much of the downtown pedestrian mall before the counterprotesters started walking up Fourth Street.

Alt-right users of Gab and Twitter continue to push this theory.

4. Did an armed man scare Fields just before the crash?

Conspiracy theory:

Fields encountered Dwayne Dixon, a University of North Carolina teaching assistant professor and member of the group Redneck Revolt, an anti-fascist group that showed up to protest the alt-right, saw Fields minutes before the crash and threatened him with an AR-15 rifle.

Dixon told jurors he saw the car circle the corner three times before he stepped out and yelled: “Get the fuck out of here!”

That moment, the theory goes, caused Fields to race along Market Street until he was forced to turn onto Fourth Street and crashed into the crowd.

Who helped spread it:

His defense attorneys pushed this narrative during the trial.

“Was this self-defense?” attorney Denise Lunsford asked jurors in closing arguments. “He says he felt he was in danger, that people were coming after him.”

Dixon himself perpetuated the conspiracy theory on Facebook, saying: “I used this rifle to chase off James Fields from our block of Fourth Street before he attacked the marchers to the south.”

Dixon also initially told police officers during an interview the car he saw may have been driven by a police officer.

How the trial debunked the theory:

Dixon was indeed in downtown Charlotteville with an AR-15 rifle on the day of “Unite the Right” providing what he called “perimeter support” for the city.

He had no official role with city officials.

Dixon reported seeing a dark grey muscle car, which he identified as being either a Dodge Charger or a Dodge Challenger (the two vehicles look similar) between 12:30 and about 1:15 p.m. that day on Jefferson Street near Court Square Park, which is home to a statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Dixon told jurors the windows on the car had a very dark tint and he didn’t see the driver.

Security video and witness testimony placed Fields and three other people at a convenience store across town buying drinks and walking back to Fields’ car from McIntyre Park during that time frame.

Also, police used a geolocator from Fields’ Facebook account to retrace his movements after the attack. The geolocator puts Fields in different spots in downtown Charlottesville, but never anywhere that Dixon could have seen him. Fields never drove down Jefferson Street where Dixon was standing.

Fields also used his phone to find directions back to Maumee, Ohio. None of those directions took him down Jefferson Street.

This theory is still being pushed by the alt-right on social media.

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