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Memes, Hitler image properly admitted in ‘Unite the Right’ murderer’s trial, Virginia appeals court rules

Despite concerns some of evidence used against convicted murderer James Alex Fields was prejudicial, a Virginia Appeals court found it helped paint a fuller picture of his intent to kill.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Images of Adolf Hitler and brash memes depicting violence against protesters were fair game in the murder trial of James Alex Fields, the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday. Fields, an Ohio native, was found guilty of murdering Heather Heyer after he traveled to Charlottesville and drove into a crowd of counter-protesters at the now infamous 2017 "Unite the Right" rally. 

In a decision handed down Tuesday, Virginia Court of Appeals Judge Robert J. Humphreys sided with the state despite Fields' numerous claims of prejudice and evidentiary issues, which could have opened the door to a new trial. 

Charlottesville-based attorney Denise Y. Lunsford argued on behalf of Fields that images he shared with friends online should have been excluded because they were posted months before the attack. But details of the memes, including images of someone driving through a crowd with the text, “You have the right to protest, but I’m late for work,” added to the prosecution's arguments in support of his intent to cause harm. 

“The fact that Fields sent or posted two images involving the same type of violence that he later acted out demonstrates that the circuit court had a basis for believing that the memes had significant probative value,” Humphreys wrote in the 20-page opinion. “The memes’ probative value was not substantially outweighed by unfairly prejudicial effects merely because they depicted the same level of gravity and atrociousness as the crime scene pictures depicting the results of Fields’ actions.”

Fields similarly attempted to single out the prosecution's use of an image of Adolf Hitler he sent to his mother ahead of the rally. While he claimed the inclusion of the Nazi leader responsible for deaths of millions would further prejudice his case, Humphreys said Charlottesville Circuit Judge Richard E. Moore took “great care” to explain his reasoning for allowing the picture to be used. 

“The Commonwealth was arguing that Fields was motivated by hatred for ethnic and political groups when he ran his car into the counter-protestors,” Humphreys wrote. “It was highly relevant because Fields’ intent, motive, and state of mind were at issue”

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, whose office argued the appeal, hailed the court’s decision. 

“We will never forget the mayhem, violence, hate, and death that white supremacists brought to Charlottesville for their Unite the Right Rally, and we must ensure that every individual who broke the law or incited violence on that fateful day is brought to justice,” he said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. 

Lunsford could not immediately be reached for comment.

It is unclear if Fields plans to appeal again. He's currently serving a sentence of life plus 419 years for his state crimes alongside sentences from guilty pleas to nearly 29 federal hate crimes. A 30th charge, which could have carried the death penalty, was dropped in exchange for the plea.

Tuesday’s decision comes near the end of a civil trial which aims to hold the organizers of the "Unite the Right" rally financially responsible to victims of the event. 

Among the more than two dozen neo-Nazi and hate-group defendants in that dispute is Michael Heimbach, founder of the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party. When Heimbach took the stand earlier this month his own social media posts, featuring cars driving through crowds, were brought up in the context of Fields’ attack.

That dispute was filed in 2017 but hearings started in early November and are set to end Friday. The plaintiffs include a handful of injured local counter-protestors who are seeking an unspecified amount in damages.

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Categories / Appeals, Criminal, Trials

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