CHARLOTTESVILLE — Two forensic science experts testified in the Charlottesville murder trial of James Alex Fields Jr. on Monday to explain how a victim died after he drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters shortly after a violent white nationalist rally came to a premature end.
The expert witnesses said Heather Heyer died of blunt force injury to her torso and that blood samples collected from Fields’ Dodge Challenger matched Heyer's DNA.
The sixth day of Fields' three-week state trial ended after the jury heard testimony from eight witnesses, including a University of Virginia police officer, a first responder who tried to save Heyer’s life, and two crash victims.
Marissa Blair-Martin, whose then-fiance pushed her out of the way of the speeding vehicle, said the two of them came downtown with another friend at around noon on Aug. 12, 2017, to meet Heyer and protest the Unite the Right rally.
Marcus Martin, now her husband, testified in court last week, describing the injuries he suffered from being struck by the car.
Arriving downtown about an hour after police declared the rally to be an unlawful assembly because of fighting between the rallygoers and counterprotesters, the four of them joined a counterprotester march that Blair said appeared to be joyful, rather than antagonistic.
"It felt like love," she said.
It was minutes later when Fields’ car slammed into the marchers after they had turned left onto a one-way street approaching the city’s downtown pedestrian mall.
Capt. Steward “Nick” Barrell, of the Charlottesville Fire Department, told the jury that he arrived on the scene of the wreck within minutes of the initial report of a pedestrian struck by a vehicle.
Barrell said he hadn't expect to find much, but he alerted his colleagues that it appeared to be a mass casualty incident after seeing what he estimated to be about 30 victims.
Barrell knew Heyer was in trouble. She had a large contusion on her chest and a laceration on her leg. Her condition appeared to be consistent with cardiac arrest and other significant trauma, so Barrell called for her immediate evacuation, he said.
“We thought there might be fractures and knew there was blood,” he said. “Outside of a hospital, that’s almost impossible to survive.”
Jennifer Nicole Bowers, an assistant chief medical examiner for the state, said she conducted an autopsy on Heyer two days after the crash. She determined that Heyer died as a result of blunt force injury to her torso.
Among other injuries, such as a broken femur and lacerations on her legs and back, Heyer’s thoracic aorta — the largest artery in the body — was severed.
Kristin Van Itallie, with the Virginia Department of Forensics, said she examined samples of blood collected from the scene of the wreck and on Fields’ vehicle. She said two of those blood samples were identical to DNA collected from a swab of Heyer’s cheek.
In his own testimony last week, a Charlottesville police detective described collecting the blood evidence. He said a sample taken from the windshield of Fields’ car appeared to be Heyer’s, based on the DNA tests.
Judge Richard E. Moore said the prosecutors are expecting to rest their case early Tuesday afternoon.
Fields is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Heyer, 32, and several other state counts related to the deadly incident. He also faces federal hate crime charges, for which he will be tried after the state trial has concluded. He could receive the death penalty in the federal case.
Fields' attorneys argue that he drove the vehicle into the crowd for fear of his life, in an act of self-defense. They are expected to begin presenting their case Tuesday afternoon.