CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - As jury selection began in the murder trial of self-professed neo-Nazi James A. Fields Jr., one of his lawyers hinted Monday that Fields' defense could include a claim that he believed he was protecting himself when he allegedly rammed his car on purpose into another vehicle on a crowded street, sending bodies flying during a white supremacists rally here 15 months ago.
Questioning prospective jurors in Charlottesville Circuit Court, defense attorney John Hill suggested the panel might hear that Fields, now 21, "thought he was acting in self-defense" when he allegedly crashed his 2010 Dodge Challenger at the "Unite the Right" rally on Aug. 12, 2017. The crash killed counterprotester Heather Heyer, 32, and injured 35 people.
With more than 100 prospective jurors sitting in Judge Richard Moore's courtroom Monday morning, Hill questioned a group of 28 Charlottesville residents in the pool. He asked whether they were familiar with self-defense law in Virginia. He also asked whether they thought it was justified to act violently in self-defense.
Video: One year after violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., witnesses and victims reflect on the day a Nazi sympathizer allegedly plowed his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer. (Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)
Fields sat quietly at the defendant's table, wearing a dark suit and tie and black-framed eyeglasses. His dark hair was neatly combed and appeared freshly trimmed.
After Moore and lawyers on each side of the case asked the 28 people general questions, the attorneys spent the afternoon in the jury room to meet individually with some of the prospective jurors. Moore returned to the bench at 5:40 p.m. He said this process would continue until about 8:30 p.m. and then resume Tuesday.
Jury selection could take until midweek, followed by testimony and legal arguments that are expected to extend into mid-December. Moore said 16 jurors will be empaneled. At the conclusion of testimony, if none of the jurors have been removed, four will be chosen at random to be excused. The remaining 12 will deliberate.
There was an indication Monday morning that Fields' mental state could be an issue in the trial. In listing 16 possible defense witnesses, another of Fields' attorneys, Denise Lunsford, mentioned the names of several people affiliated with the University of Virginia's Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy.
The institute's Web page describes it as a "program in mental health, forensic psychiatry, forensic psychology" and several related disciplines, including "forensic clinical evaluations."
She also listed Fields' mother as a possible witness.
Commonwealth's Attorney Joe Platania listed 40 potential prosecution witnesses, many of whom are law enforcement officers and emergency first responders.
Fields, of Maumee, Ohio, near Toledo, is accused of first-degree murder in Heyer's death. He also is charged with five counts of aggravated malicious wounding and three counts of malicious wounding in relation to eight of the 35 injured people. The lethal incident climaxed a day of violent clashes involving hundreds of white supremacists and their opponents. The outpouring of racist and anti-Semitic hate galvanized national attention on emboldened ethno-fascism in the early months of the Trump administration.
In a sign that empaneling an impartial jury could be difficult, most of the 28 prospective panel members raised their hands when the judge asked whether they were familiar with what occurred during the rally.
When they were asked whether they had opinions about Fields' guilt, 15 raised their hands. But they indicated that they could put aside their opinions and render verdicts based on the evidence in the case.
About a dozen police officers were posted outside the courthouse. But as hours passed during a damp Monday with no demonstrators and few onlookers in front of the building, the police presence gradually decreased.
This article was written by Paul Duggan, a reporter for The Washington Post.