Charlottesville Trial Begins

Nov 26, 2018
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Jury selection has started in the murder trial of James Alex Fields Jr. in Charlottesville, Va. He's accused of ramming his car through a crowd of people protesting a white supremacist rally last year. Heather Heyer was killed. Dozens of others were wounded. NPR's Debbie Elliott was at the courthouse today. She joins us now from Charlottesville. Hey there.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: Remind us what James Fields' background is and what the charges are exactly that he's facing.

ELLIOTT: Well, he's a 21-year-old white man. He is from Ohio. And he has pleaded not guilty to these 10 criminal counts that he's facing brought by the Commonwealth of Virginia. He's first of all charged with murder in the death of Heather Heyer and then some additional charges for malicious wounding and assault and also hit and run.

Now, authorities say he deliberately drove his gray Dodge Challenger into a group of counter-protesters during the August 2017 Unite the Right rally. And if you recall, that's when hundreds of white nationalists came to Charlottesville to act against the city's plans to remove a Confederate statue. And after the event turned deadly, President Trump blamed both sides for the violence.

KELLY: Right. Now, you were there for some of the jury selection today. How did that go?

ELLIOTT: You know, very slowly. At one point the judge even acknowledged that and told the potential jurors who had gathered that the court is trying to be, quote, "as careful as we can." You know, nearly everyone in this first group of jurors questioned today admitted that they had heard about the case. They knew about it.

KELLY: Sure. Yeah.

ELLIOTT: They'd seen it on the media or even knew someone. One person was there when it happened. Another knew somebody who was hurt. More than a dozen say they have formed an opinion already. So the judge and the attorneys for both sides are now privately questioning the prospective jurors to see if they can, you know, set aside those opinions to render judgment in this case.

Now, Fields' defense has asked that this be moved out of Charlottesville because it has had such a huge impact on the town here and on the residents. The lawyers argue that he can't get a fair trial. The judge has taken that under advisement, saying he's going to go through this jury selection process and then revisit the question if somehow an impartial jury cannot be seated.

Now, that is something that is a real concern for Susan Bro. She's Heather Heyer's mother and is looking for justice here. Here's what she told me about it.

SUSAN BRO: I want him to have a completely fair and impartial trial. I don't want to have to redo this 15 times, (laughter) you know? There's going to be enough appeals and everything anyway. I feel like this will go on for years. So I feel like I'm entering a new phase of reality.

KELLY: You can almost hear her bracing there, Deb, for what is going to be exceptionally painful evidence for all of us to listen to, obviously especially for her.

ELLIOTT: You know, prosecutors are going to try to build this case showing that Fields came to Charlottesville with the intent to cause trouble. And some of the key evidence that they're going to have are these videotapes that eyewitnesses have. You know, victims who were injured are going to testify. And then they're going to show this very graphic and dramatic eyewitness video of that car crashing into the crowd.

KELLY: And what kind of defense are James Fields' attorney planning to mount?

ELLIOTT: We got a first glimpse of that in court today. One of his attorneys told the prospective jurors that there will be evidence that Fields thought he was acting in self-defense and that they should expect some medical and mental health records to come into play.

KELLY: Thank you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

KELLY: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott speaking with us from Charlottesville, Va.

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