Kentucky-raised driver to argue self-defense in hit-and-run killing at white nationalist rally

Kentucky mayor on former resident accused of killing Charlottesville protester

Florence, Ky. Mayor Diane Whalen says her city should not be defined by former resident James Alex Fields Jr., a white supremacist who allegedly killed protester Heather Heyer with his car in Charlottesville, Va.
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Florence, Ky. Mayor Diane Whalen says her city should not be defined by former resident James Alex Fields Jr., a white supremacist who allegedly killed protester Heather Heyer with his car in Charlottesville, Va.

A Kentucky-raised man charged with killing a woman during a white nationalist rally in Virginia plans to argue that he believed he was acting in self-defense when he drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.

A lawyer for 21-year-old James Alex Fields Jr., who was raised in Florence and attended northern Kentucky schools, offered a glimpse of the defense strategy as jury selection began Monday in Charlottesville, fifteen months after this quiet Virginia city became a flash point for race relations in the U.S.

The “Unite the Right” rally on Aug. 12, 2017 rally drew hundreds of white nationalists to Charlottesville, where officials planned to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds more showed up to protest against the white nationalists.

The two sides began brawling before the rally got underway, throwing punches, setting off smoke bombs and unleashing chemical sprays. Later, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed when a car authorities say was driven by Fields plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters.

A photo of Heather Heyer, who was killed during a white nationalist rally, sits on the ground at a memorial Wednesday, the day her life was celebrated at the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, Va. Evan Vucci Associated Press

Afterward, President Donald Trump inflamed racial tensions when he said “both sides” were to blame, a comment some saw as a refusal to condemn racism.

Fields’ attorney John Hill told a group of prospective jurors Monday the jury will hear evidence that Fields “thought he was acting in self-defense.”

Confederate Monument Protest
This photo provided by the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail shows James Alex Fields Jr., who was charged with second-degree murder and other counts after authorities say he rammed his car into a crowd of protesters Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Va., where a white supremacist rally took place. AP

Hill asked if any of the prospective jurors believe using violence in self-defense is never appropriate.

Fields was known in high school for being fascinated with Nazism and idolizing Adolf Hitler and he was photographed hours before the attack with a shield bearing the emblem of Vanguard America, one of the hate groups that participated in the rally. Vanguard America denied any association with him.

Nearly all of the 68 prospective jurors in the first group to be questioned Monday said they had read or heard about the case.

About 20 people said they had formed an opinion in the case. When asked if their opinion was so strong they could not put it aside and decide the case based only on the evidence, no hands were raised.

Pretrial hearings have offered few insights into Fields or his motivation. A Charlottesville police detective testified that as he was being detained after the car crash, Fields said he was sorry and sobbed when he was told a woman had been killed. Fields later told a judge he is being treated for bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression and ADHD.

Star Peterson, whose right leg was virtually crushed by the car, has had five surgeries and still uses a wheelchair and cane. She sat quietly in the court room Monday watching the proceedings.

White nationalist Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right,” said he has never had any contact with Fields and does not plan to attend his trial. He said he hopes the trial does not paint all members of the movement as violent.

“It’s a deeply disturbing incident, and that this one incident could symbolize things that I believe in and things that millions of people believe in, that would be very unfortunate, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” he said.

“I’m not making a judgment on the guilt or innocence of James Fields. I’m only demanding that he be given a fair trial.”

Instead of strengthening the alt-right movement, the rally proved to be a disaster. The movement’s leaders are fighting lawsuits and have been kicked off mainstream internet platforms. A one-year anniversary rally held near the White House drew only about 30 white nationalists.

Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, created the Heather Heyer Foundation to honor her daughter and provide scholarships to students in law, paralegal studies, social work, social justice and education.

Bro said she is doubtful the trial will bring her any sense of closure. Fields also faces a separate trial on federal hate crime charges.

“I’m not obsessed with him,” she says of Fields. “I feel like I’ve turned him over to the justice system. He’s their problem, not mine.”

Demonstrators marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12 for the one-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally. Police blocked off 4th Street at Water Street to stop people from going to the exact spot. Warning: strong language.

During a press conference about infrastructure held at Trump Tower on Aug. 15, President Donald Trump said that “both sides,” including the “alt-left” were to blame for the violent rally in Charlottesville, VA.