Convicted Unite the Right car attacker James Alex Fields Jr., serving a life sentence for first degree murder, is attempting to appeal his criminal conviction to the Supreme Court of Virginia.
Fields was arrested Aug. 12, 2017, after he drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens. He filed a notice of appeal in December 2019, a year after he was found guilty of first-degree murder and other charges.
The Virginia Court of Appeals denied his appeal in November, upholding his Charlottesville Circuit Court conviction. In addition to a life sentence from the state trial, Fields has pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges.
The Supreme Court of Virginia has not yet decided whether it will grant the appeal.
In the appeals court, a panel of three judges heard arguments for and against the appeal during a Sept. 13, 2021 hearing, and Judge Robert Humphreys wrote the order.
Fields was represented by Denise Lunsford, who was appointed by the court to represent him during his state trial.
Lunsford is a former Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney who successfully prosecuted Albemarle serial killer Jesse Matthew on capital murder charges. He is serving several life sentences.
Rosemary Bourne, senior assistant attorney general, represented the state in the hearing.
As with the Court of Appeals petition, Fields’ state Supreme Court filing relies largely on the argument that he should not have been tried in Charlottesville. The filing states that the local court found “that prejudice in the community was not so widespread as to prevent a fair trial, but failed when it failed to consider the deep and bitter pattern of prejudice against [Fields] fostered through continued adverse publicity and demonstrated by the reasons jurors were stricken for cause and in voir dire as a whole.”
Also at issue in the appeal is the Charlottesville court’s decision to admit two images of a meme and social media post, the photo of Adolf Hitler that Fields texted to his mother and transcripts of jailhouse conversations between Fields and his mother.
“The trial court abused its discretion by admitting into evidence the photograph of Adolf Hitler,” the petition states. “Its probative value to establish mental state and intent was marginal while it had the potential to arouse the jury’s hostility and confuse or distract it from the relevant considerations.”
Rather than file a new brief, Bourne filed a notice that the state will rely upon the briefs previously filed and on the opinion of the Court of Appeals.
All of the issues were addressed in the Nov. 16 Court of Appeals opinion, which found Fields’ arguments to be unpersuasive.
The appeals court pointed to the size of the jury pool, which started at 360 people, and the extensive questioning of potential jurors to support the city circuit court decision to keep the trial in Charlottesville.
“The circuit court noted that it normally would summon 30 to 40 jurors for a regular, non-publicized felony trial and in Fields’ case they went through 75 jurors to get an adequate jury,” Humphreys wrote in the order. “The circuit court also stated that it gave the attorneys more leeway in questioning and that the whole process was the most extensive, thorough, detailed, and careful voir dire [the court had held.]”
Meanwhile, the admission of the evidence in question unfairly prejudiced the jury against Fields, Lunsford argued in a brief.
The meme and social media post showed a car driving into a group of pedestrians and captioned with “when I see protestors blocking” and “you have the right to protest, but I’m late for work,” according to the order.
The appeals court sided with the city circuit court judge who decided the value of the evidence to issues brought out in the case was not outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice to Fields.
“While the memes were undoubtedly prejudicial to Fields’ claim of innocence, they did not inflame the jury’s passions or invite decision based upon an unrelated factor,” Humphreys wrote. “Because Fields’ intent was at issue in the case, the circuit court’s finding that the memes were probative, material, and relevant circumstantial evidence and thus admissible, was not an abuse of discretion.”
The Hitler image and jailhouse conversations also were relevant because they shed light on Fields’ intent, motive and state of mind, according to the order.