Defense rests in Virginia murder trial of white nationalist

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) - The defense rested its case on Thursday in the trial of the man who killed a counterprotester at a white nationalist rally last year by plowing his car into a crowd, after the defendant's lawyers called witnesses that suggested he was driven by fear.

Lawyers for the 21-year-old defendant, James Fields, presented testimony on Thursday by a self-styled anti-fascist who guarded counterprotesters at the rally. The witness said he had warned Fields shortly before the fatal car-ramming incident to leave the area immediately.

Dwayne Dixon, a member of the left-wing group Red Neck Revolt, said he had an AR-15 rifle over his shoulder when he saw Fields make three passes in his Dodge Challenger at Jackson Park, where counterprotesters had gathered on Aug. 12, 2017.

“I yelled, ‘Get the fuck out of here’ or something to that effect,” Dixon told the jury on the last day of testimony in the 10-day trial.

At that point, about 30 to 60 minutes before the fatal car-ramming incident two blocks away, Fields' car “slowly accelerated away,” Dixon said.

State prosecutors sought to discredit Dixon with testimony from a Charolottesville police officer who said cellphone tracking data showed that Fields had been near the park only once.

The defense has argued that Fields feared for his life and was acting in self-defense when his car killed counterprotester Heather Heyer, 32, and injured 19 others on Aug. 12, 2017.

State prosecutors are trying to show that Fields deliberately intended to ram his car into the crowd. He faces 10 charges, including murder, which carries a maximum life sentence if he is convicted.

Another defense witness, Joshua Matthews, said he had seen Fields and counterprotestors yelling at each other during the "Unite the Right" rally and that some white nationalists had been wounded and pepper-sprayed.

Fields was one of hundreds of white nationalists who descended on Charlottesville that weekend to protest the planned removal from a public park of a statue honoring the U.S. Civil War-era Confederacy.

Earlier this week, jurors heard that the day before going to Charlottesville, Fields exchanged cellphone text messages with his mother suggesting the counterprotesters would "need to be careful," and sent her an image of Adolf Hitler.

After his arrest, Fields broke down in tears at the police station upon learning he had killed someone, according to video footage shown to the jury.

(Writing by Peter Szekely; Editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis)

12/06/2018 17:16

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