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Jury Begins Hearing Testimony In Charlottesville Trial


A jury in Charlottesville, Va., began hearing testimony today in the murder trial of a man accused of plowing his car into counter-protesters during a white supremacist rally last year. James Alex Fields Jr. is charged with killing one woman and injuring dozens of other people. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been in the courtroom, and she joins us now. Hey, Debbie.


CHANG: So both sides were able to lay out their cases during opening statements today. Did you get a sense of what issue this case is ultimately going to come down to?

ELLIOTT: Yes. It's all about intent. You know, no one is disputing the fact that Fields drove his gray Dodge Challenger into this group of antiracist demonstrators. If you'll recall, Heather Heyer was killed. Dozens of other people were wounded. The question now comes down to did he do it intentionally, or did he do it because he feared for his safety, which is what his lawyers are saying.

CHANG: So how will prosecutors try to prove intent?

ELLIOTT: You know, during her opening statement today, assistant Commonwealth attorney Nina-Alice Antony told the jury that there's going to be a lot of victim testimony. There's going to be a lot of graphic video and photo evidence showing that Fields acted deliberately. He had driven all night from Ohio to participate in the Unite the Right rally.

To help establish his motive, she says they're going to show evidence that he had this history of posting racist views on social media, including a post - or two posts, actually - just a few months before this rally that showed an image of a car running into a group of people. Anthony also said that prosecutors will introduce some phone records that show that as he was arriving in Charlottesville very early that morning, a family member texted him to be careful. And Fields responded, quote, "we're not the ones who need to be careful."

CHANG: Wow. So the defense lawyer in this case indicated before today that he's going to try to argue Fields was acting in self-defense. How did he explain that theory in his opening statement today?

ELLIOTT: Well, first of all, he came right out - his defense attorney is John Hill - came right out and said that, you know, we're not disputing the fact that he drove the car. He said, this is not a case about where we have to figure out who was driving the car.

CHANG: Right.

ELLIOTT: The question is whether it was a malicious act with the intent to cause death and injury. He says Fields was, quote, "scared to death" and feared bodily harm because of this increasingly chaotic and tense scene in Charlottesville that day. This was August 12, 2017. And you'll recall that there had been violent clashes between participants of the Unite the Right rally and counter-protesters. They were fighting, throwing bottles. There were use of chemicals sprays. And because of that violence, authorities finally declared it an unlawful assembly and dispersed the crowds.

CHANG: So the first witnesses for the prosecution were called today. Who took the stand?

ELLIOTT: Well, so far we've heard from both victims and some eyewitnesses. And they all described a somewhat jubilant atmosphere that afternoon as this group of counter-protesters was marching and chanting, whose streets? Our streets. They were celebrating the fact that the white nationalist rally had been shut down. And they all described in different kinds of details seeing and hearing this car accelerate rapidly down this narrow, one-way street and plow into the crowd.

Marcus Martin was a victim who testified. He talked about pushing his fiance out of the car's path. He was there with Heather Heyer and some other - some of her co-workers. He could hardly speak for a moment after becoming emotional talking about her and seeing the images of him being hit by the car and sprawled over the hood of that car.

CHANG: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott in Charlottesville, Va. Thank you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.