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Venue change correctly denied in murder case

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//December 2, 2021

Venue change correctly denied in murder case

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//December 2, 2021

Widespread news reports about appellant driving into a crowd of protestors were, standing alone, an insufficient reason to grant his motion to change venue.

Further, the trial court properly allowed the prosecution to introduce a meme appellant sent to a friend, and another that he posted on social media several months before the incident. Both depicted a motorist driving into a crowd of people.

In addition, an image of Adolph Hitler, which appellant included in a text to his mother, was also correctly admitted as evidence.

Appellant’s convictions are affirmed.


Fields drove his car into a group of pedestrian counter-protestors at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. One person was killed. Several others were injured. Earlier in the day Fields was seen on a “video marching and chanting, ‘Jews will not replace us[.]’”

Fields was charged with first-degree murder and other offenses. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

There was extensive pretrial publicity, not only in Charlottesville but nationwide as well. Fields moved for a change of venue. The trial court denied the motion.

Fields also sought to exclude from evidence a meme he sent to a friend, and another he posted on social media several months before the incident. Both depicted a car driving into a group of pedestrians. Both memes suggested the people were protestors.

One suggested the driver was late for work and bore the caption, “When I see protestors blocking.” The other caption stated, “You have the right to protest, but I’m late for work.” The trial court denied Fields’ motion.

The commonwealth sought to introduce text messages between Fields and his mother. Fields informed his mother he was going to the rally. His mother advised him to be careful. “Fields messaged her again and said, ‘We’re not the one[s] who need to be careful.’

“He attached a photo of Adolf Hitler to his last text message. Fields did not object to admitting the text messages, but he did object to admitting the accompanying image of Hitler.” The trial court ruled for the commonwealth.

The jury found Fields guilty of first-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, five counts of aggravated wounding and leaving the scene of an accident.

He appealed based on denied motions for a change of venue and the evidentiary rulings in the commonwealth’s favor.


“Fields asserts that the trauma to the Charlottesville community, coupled with the significant pretrial publicity that his case received, impaired his constitutional right to have his case heard by an impartial jury. …

“We have previously held that, ‘[i]n determining whether community prejudice against the defendant is sufficiently pervasive to preclude a fair trial and justify a change in venue, the primary inquiry is the ease with which an impartial jury can be selected.’ …

“[T]he circuit court conducted a deliberate and thoughtful voir dire in order to seat an appropriate jury.” Questionnaires jointly drafted by the court, the prosecutor and defense counsel were sent to an initial venire of 360 jurors. Based on their answers, 43 jurors were excluded by counsels’ agreement. After voir dire by the court and counsel, a panel of 28 jurors was selected from a group of 75.

“[T]he circuit court took great time and care, as evidenced by its thorough questioning, in ensuring that an impartial jury was able to be seated.”

As to the nature of the pretrial publicity, “sheer volume of publicity is not sufficient, in and of itself, to justify a change of venue, particularly given the prolific volume of news available in the age of the internet. …

“The circuit court below correctly determined that … while the volume and timing of publicity does matter, it is not the ultimate concern in assessing whether a change in venue was appropriately denied. …

“Instead of focusing solely on publicity, the circuit court correctly assessed the totality of the surrounding facts in Fields’ case[.] …

“The record supports the circuit court’s conclusion that selecting jurors willing to honor their oath to keep an open mind and follow the court’s instructions was relatively easy, that the publicity was accurate and noninflammatory, and that there was not such widespread prejudice against Fields that he could not obtain an impartial jury.”

The trial court properly denied the motion to change venue.


“Fields alleges that the circuit court erred by allowing the two protest memes to be admitted into evidence over his objection. He does not contest the memes’ relevance but contends that they were unfairly prejudicial. …

“Memes depicting a car driving destructively into a crowd of protestors constituted relevant circumstantial evidence that was probative of Fields’ intent due to the memes’ striking similarity to the act Fields committed. …

“[T]he 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.

“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. …

“Because Fields’ intent was at issue in the case, the circuit court’s finding that the memes were probative, material, and relevant circumstantial evidence and thus admissible, was not an abuse of discretion.”

Fields also argues that admitting into evidence the Hitler image in a text message to his mother was more prejudicial than probative. “The circuit court acknowledged that the image of Hitler could be prejudicial but permitted it to be admitted into evidence for the purpose of determining Fields’ intent, motive, and state of mind. …

“The circuit court held that other evidence introduced in the case, including that which showed Fields marching and chanting ‘Jews will not replace us,’ on the morning of the attack, reduced the prejudicial effects of the contested image of Hitler on Fields[.] …

“[T]he Commonwealth was arguing that Fields was motivated by hatred for ethnic and political groups when he ran his car into the counter-protestors. The image of Adolph Hitler had significant probative value. It was highly relevant because Fields’ intent, motive, and state of mind were at issue. …

“[W]e find no abuse of discretion in admitting this image[.]”

Convictions affirmed.

Fields v. Commonwealth, Record No. 1964-19-2, Nov. 16, 2021. (CAV) Humphreys. From the Charlottesville City Circuit Court (Moore). Denise Y. Lunsford for appellant; Rosemary V. Bourne for appellee. VLW 021-7-158, 20 pp. Published.

VLW 021-7-158

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