Man hit by car at white nationalist rally gives emotional testimony at driver's murder trial

No one disputes James Alex Fields Jr. plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally in Virginia last year, killing a woman and injuring dozens more. The only question, jurors were told Thursday, is why did he do it?

Defendant does not dispute that he drove the car in Charlottesville, Va., death

People fly into the air as a vehicle is driven into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Marcus Martin is the man in front, in the white top and red and white sneakers. (Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress/Associated Press)

One of the first witnesses at the trial of the man charged with driving his car into a crowd of people In Charlottesville, Va., last year was a man whose image was captured in a dramatic photo as he was struck by James Alex Fields Jr.'s car.

Marcus Martin became tearful several times while testifying, particularly when asked to describe Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and civil rights activist who was killed when she was struck by Fields' car. "She was just a great person," Martin said, his voice cracking with emotion.

Neither the prosecution nor the defence is disputing that Fields plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally on Aug. 12, 2017, killing Heyer and injuring dozens more.

The only question, jurors were told to consider Thursday, is why did he do it?

The prosecution and defence agree James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Va. last year, killing Heather Heyer. The jury is being asked to decide why he did it. (Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail via Associated Press)

Martin testified he and his fiancée, Heyer, and another friend had just joined the group of counter-protesters when he heard a tire screech. He said he pushed his fiancée out of the way, then he was hit by Fields' car, suffering a broken leg and other injuries. "I really didn't know what happened," he said.

A photo of Martin and others being tossed into the air by the car won a Pulitzer Prize. Martin is in the photo suspended in the air, wearing a white T-shirt, khaki shorts, and red and white sneakers.

During opening statements at Fields' murder trial, prosecutors and defence lawyers painted two starkly different pictures of what prompted the 21-year-old reputed admirer of Adolf Hitler to drive his grey Dodge Challenger into the crowd. 

Prosecutor Nina-Alice Antony told the jury that Fields was angry after fighting broke out earlier that day between white nationalists who came to Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and others who came to protest against them.

Antony said Fields had driven all night from his home in Maumee, Ohio, to attend the rally in support of white nationalists. A former teacher of Fields has said he was fascinated by Nazism and admired Hitler. Three months before the rally, Fields twice posted on Instagram an image of a crowd being struck by a car, Antony said, adding that the people in the crowd were described as "protesters."

"This case is about his decision to act on that anger," Antony said.

Defence agrees Fields drove the car

Defence attorney John Hill agreed there's no doubt Fields drove the car that careened into the crowd, but Hill said it happened after hours of violent clashes between white nationalists and counter-protesters, including street brawling, people throwing bottles and the use of tear gas and chemical sprays.

Hill said Fields eventually met up with two other people who will testify that he was not angry and appeared calm when he gave them a ride to their cars. A short time later, Fields drove into the crowd.

Hill told jurors they will hear testimony from a police officer who pulled Fields over after the crash. "You'll hear James tell the officer that he feared for his safety, that was scared to death," he said. Fields also expressed remorse about the people who were hurt, Hill said.