RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – An American neo-Nazi went on trial for murder Monday for allegedly ramming his car into counter-protesters at a 2017 white supremacist rally that made the city of Charlottesville a byword for rising racial tensions under President Donald Trump.
Suspect James Fields sat wordlessly through the proceedings as Judge Richard Moore informed the court he had pleaded not guilty to all charges related to the deadly rampage in August 2017.
The 21 year old is charged with first-degree murder over the death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and social activist, as well as hit-and-run charges and eight counts of causing serious injury with his black Dodge Challenger during the “Unite the Right” protest.
Offering a hint into their strategy, Fields’ legal team asked prospective jurors Monday whether they thought violence was ever permissible in self-defense, according to an activist who was present.
The rampage in Virginia highlighted the growing audacity of the far right under Trump, whose rhetoric and policies are blamed by critics for a spike in racist and anti-Semitic violence.
The president drew broad criticism following the attack when he spoke of “blame on both sides,” and appeared to establish a moral equivalence between the white supremacists who came to the liberal university city to protest the removal of a Confederate statue, and those who opposed them.
Jury selection is expected to last around two days, with the full trial penciled in to last until mid-December.
The precincts of the courthouse were quiet but police had put up water-filled barriers around the building, anticipating crowds later in the week, and four armed officers stood guard.
If convicted of first degree murder Fields faces 20 years to life in prison.
Fields has been separately charged with, and pleaded not guilty to, federal hate crimes including one offense which carries the death penalty. A trial date has not yet been set for that case, and prosecutors have not indicated whether they will seek the maximum punishment.
The Unite the Right rally was organized by white nationalists Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the top general of the pro-slavery Confederacy during the American Civil War.
The protest saw hundreds of neo-Nazi sympathizers, accompanied by rifle-carrying men, yelling white nationalist slogans and wielding flaming torches in scenes eerily reminiscent of racist rallies held in the U.S. South before the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
On the second day of demonstrations, August 12, fighting broke out between neo-Nazi supporters and anti-fascists from a black-clad group called Antifa.
The violence culminated with Fields’ alleged attack.
According to his federal hate crimes indictment, Fields had multiple social media accounts where he expressed support for white supremacism as well as the racial policies of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, and advocated violence against black people and Jews.
The Toledo Blade, a local newspaper from Ohio where Fields lived, reported he enlisted in the army in August 2015, but was discharged in December “due to a failure to meet training standards.”
The specter of violence by right-wing extremists was once more in the spotlight last month when Cesar Sayoc, a Trump mega-fan, sent 15 pipe bombs to the president’s political opponents and media critics.
On October 27, Robert Bowers was accused of slaughtering 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, shouting “All Jews must die” before opening fire with his arsenal of guns in the worst anti-Semitic attack in modern U.S. history.