As James Alex Fields Jr. continues to attempt to appeal his 2018 criminal conviction, court documents detail his argument that Charlottesville was an improper trial venue.
Fields, 24, was arrested on Aug. 12, 2017, after he drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens. He was convicted of first-degree murder and other charges by a Charlottesville Circuit Court jury in December 2018. The jury recommended a life sentence plus 419 years, a decision that was upheld by a judge in July 2019 and finalized that November.
Although Fields filed a notice of appeal in December 2019, the appeal languished for a time due in part to stresses put on the court system by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in recent months, counsel for Fields and the commonwealth have filed briefs with the Virginia Court of Appeals.
The brief filed on Fields’ behalf focuses on several alleged errors made by the trial court, including that the trial was held in Charlottesville. The argument that the city was an improper venue for the trial is not new and was the subject of two pretrial motions, both of which were taken under advisement and ultimately dismissed by the presiding Charlottesville Circuit judge.
Fields’ counsel continues this argument in his appellant brief, expanding on the supporting documents and presenting new information about alleged difficulties seating jurors.
According to the appellant brief, an abundance of media coverage in the months following the car attack, as well as the trauma the rally caused the Charlottesville community, created a locality that was not fit to fairly try Fields. The brief is credited to attorneys Denise Lunsford and John Hill, who were appointed by the court to represent Fields during his state trial.
“The pre-trial publicity was inaccurate, inflammatory, and intemperate, going well beyond factually accurate and non-inflammatory reporting,” the brief reads. “Articles referred to [Fields] as a neo-Nazi and white supremacist. Some stated one victim died because of white supremacy.”
Included as supporting evidence are hundreds of pages of news reports, including many from The Daily Progress and other local outlets. However, a significant portion of the news reports included are wire service articles originating from national outlets and republished by local news sites.
Fields’ counsel argues that the “the intense focus on the attack, of which media attention was a part, saturated the community in the time leading up to trial” and helped to create a “pervasive atmosphere of prejudice.”
The appellant brief also contains arguments that given the relatively small size of Charlottesville, there was difficulty in seating a jury. In support of this claim, Fields’ counsel shares a trial incident in which a juror mentioned that a man in a white polo shirt made her feel “uneasy” due to its similarity to the uniform worn by many Unite the Right attendees.
Also included is a social media statement from former City Councilor Kristin Szakos, which Fields’ counsel argues is a representation of the community’s attitude toward their client.
“Interesting how all the white supremacists and [N]azis want to move their trials away from Charlottesville,” Szakos’ post read. “They know they will get no sympathy here. We are not their people.”
Additional alleged errors made by the trial court surround the admission of several pieces of evidence: a meme depicting a car driving into a crowd; a photograph of Adolf Hitler that Fields sent to his mother the day before the rally; and recorded conversations between Fields and his mother following his arrest. All of these pieces of evidence served more to prejudice the jury against Fields than to provide explanation for his actions, the brief argues.
In response to Fields’ filing, a brief was filed on behalf of the state in August, just days before the fourth anniversary of the rally. Credited to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and Senior Assistant Attorney General Rosemary V. Bourne, the appellee brief largely brushes off Fields’s arguments as either insufficient or not reaching the standard needed for an appeal.
The brief begins by claiming that several of Fields’s arguments are not encompassed by his assignment of error and should not be considered by the Virginia Court of Appeals. Similarly, the attorney general’s office argues that the arguments that the media coverage was “inflammatory” and “inaccurate” are factors specifically excluded by his assignment of error. His arguments should instead be limited on appeal to whether the community trauma and significant publicity caused difficulty in seating a jury.
The appellee brief also contains the argument that jurors are not required to be totally ignorant of the facts and issues in a case and that “the mere showing of extensive publicity or general knowledge of a crime or of the accused, including his criminal record, is not enough to justify a change of venue.”
The brief also attacks claims made in Fields’s appeal that the news coverage of him was not factually accurate, citing characterizations made by the trial court that the articles were “factual in nature and accurate,” and “most of them were not inflammatory.”
“Also, many of the cited articles were not directly about Fields or his participation in the Unite the Right rally,” the appellee brief reads. “Indeed, some articles did not mention him at all, some of the articles merely mentioned that he was charged in one or two short paragraphs, after a lengthy discussion of tangentially related issues such as removal of the Confederate statues, other incidents that took place the date of the rally, racial justice, or traffic plans.”
In response to the argument that the community was too traumatized by Fields’s attack for Charlottesville to be a proper venue, counsel for the state argues that much of the counseling offered in the wake of the rally cannot be tied to Fields’s acts alone. Instead, to the extent that some community members felt emotional trauma after the rally, it may have resulted from other factors, such as the violence of the protest overall and to systematic racism and white supremacy.
The meme and image of Hitler were properly admitted, the appellee brief argues, because they speak to Fields’ motivation, which “were the exclusive issues in this case.”
“In fact, in his opening statement, [Fields’] counsel said, ‘this is not a ‘whodunit’ case, but instead turned on whether his ‘act [was] done with the intent,’” the brief reads. “A meme which Fields chose to post on Instagram and then sent to a friend demonstrates extreme hostility and callousness toward people whom he considered to be protesters, it showed his feeling towards his victims, and it was a virtual blueprint, a ‘carbon copy’ of the horrific crimes he committed just months later.”
Similarly, the photograph of Hitler in conjunction with the message “we’re not the ones who should be careful” showed who Fields considered “we” were and at whom he was likely to direct his malice toward at the protest, the state counsel argues.
However, if the court finds that the photo or meme should not have been admitted, then counsel for the state argues that any error was harmless and did not significantly impact the result of the trial.
Now that the appellee brief has been filed, counsel for Fields will again have the option to file a reply to the appellee’s argument. The case will subsequently be scheduled for oral argument. No hearing dates for the case are currently set in the Virginia Court of Appeals.
Even in the event that Fields’s appeal is successful — a rarity for criminal cases — he is still serving 29 life sentences he received after accepting a plea agreement in a federal hate crimes case in 2019. Of those sentences, 28 are running concurrently and the federal sentence runs consecutively with the state sentence. Because Fields accepted a plea agreement in the federal case, his grounds for appeal there are essentially nil.