The Virginia Court of Appeals denied James Fields Jr.’s appeal Tuesday, upholding a December 2018 murder conviction.
Fields can still appeal Tuesday’s decisions to the state Supreme Court. In addition to a life sentence from the state trial, Fields has pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges.
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.
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 Fields during his state trial. Rosemary Bourne, senior assistant attorney general, represented the Commonwealth in the hearing.
At issue in Fields’ appeal were whether the Circuit Court should have moved the trial to a different venue and the 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.
Fields’ counsel argued that “community trauma” from the events of Aug. 12 2017 as well as the pre-trial publicity made it difficult to receive a fair trial. During the state trial, the defense sought twice to move the trial — motions that the presiding Charlottesville Circuit judge ultimately dismissed.
The Appeals court pointed to the size of the jury pool, which started at 360 people, and the extensive questioning of potential jurors in its ruling supporting the Circuit Court decision to keep the trial in Charlottesville.
“The circuit court noted that it normally would summon thirty to forty jurors for a regular, non-publicized felony trial and in Fields’ case they went through seventy-five 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 that I’ve ever participated in.’”
Voir dire is the process of questioning potential jurors to see whether they might have biases, conflicts of interests or other reasons that prevent them from being fair jurors.
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.
Once again, the Appeals court sided with the Circuit Court judge, who decided the evidences’ value to issues in the case was not substantially outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice.
“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.