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How Trump's comments on Charlottesville murder suspect may threaten the legal case against him

  • August 16, 2017

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James Alex Fields Jr., who slammed his car through a crowd of anti-protesters at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, will not get bond.
Buzz60

WASHINGTON — By calling the lone suspect of the deadly car crash in Charlottesville “a murderer,” President Trump may have unwittingly prejudiced the legal case against him – which legal analysts said could throw up roadblocks for bringing the alleged white nationalist to justice. 

At the center of a new political firestorm for blaming both counter-protesters and white supremacists in a deadly clash this weekend in Virginia, Trump on Tuesday encouraged the judicial system to find the “fastest” path to a guilty verdict for 20-year-old Alex James Fields. 

Yet Trump’s off-the-cuff comments in a rollicking press conference in Trump Tower likely made it harder to seat an impartial jury, legal analysts said, and offered his defense lawyers an opportunity to argue the case should be moved out of Charlottesville. 

“I think it is relevant to ask whether the president has infected the jury pool,” said Vikram Kapil, president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “I think it becomes very relevant for defense lawyers to ask potential jurors whether they agree with what President Trump said. You can’t ignore it.”

Fields is charged with second degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and failing to stop at the scene of an accident. The Ohio man was allegedly at the wheel of a car Saturday that slammed into a gathering of demonstrators who had assembled to counter a white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and wounding 19 others. 

Two Virginia state troopers also were killed when their helicopter, involved in surveillance of the protests, crashed Saturday afternoon.

The suspect, who had joined the alt-right action to protest the removal of a statue of confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a local park, made his first state court appearance Tuesday.

Federal authorities also are investigating the death as a possible hate crime. On Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said federal investigators were working closely with local authorities. Earlier this week, the attorney general said the alleged attack appeared to meet the definition of a domestic terrorism. 

“I don’t feel like we should feel like we have to do it in a matter of hours or even days,” Sessions told NBC News.

In a rambling, impromptu news conference Tuesday, where Trump appeared to defend the alt-right protesters, the president also was unequivocal in his assessment of Fields.

“Well, I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family and this country,” Trump said, referring to Fields. “You can call it terrorism; you can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want. I would just call it as the fastest one to come up with a good verdict.”

Former Charlottesville-area prosecutor Denise Lunsford, who was appointed Wednesday to represent Fields, declined comment.

But Virginia criminal defense attorneys said they expected Trump’s remarks to re-surface as Fields’s attorneys weigh a possible effort to move the trial out of Charlottesville or seek to try the case before a judge, rather than risk the wrath of a potentially biased jury.

“It’s probably inescapable that Trump’s ill-advised comments will play some role here,” said David Heilberg, a Charlottesville defense attorney. “It most likely comes into play in a change of venue.

“You’re not going to find anybody here who doesn’t know about what happened and may have formed an opinion about it. It only gets harder to sort through those possible biases when you have the president commenting on it,” he said. “This practice of (Trump) shooting from the lip, well, it’s kind of crazy.”

While potentially problematic, Trump’s comments about a pending criminal case are not unprecedented for a sitting president.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno both announced their support for the death penalty in the case even before suspects were identified.

Later, attorneys for Timothy bomber McVeigh unsuccessfully sought to have Reno barred from participating in the Justice Department’s decision to seek the death penalty. McVeigh was ultimately convicted and executed in 2001 for carrying out the attack.

While it is likely that Trump’s remarks could be part of a defense argument for a change of venue, Kapil said prosecutors could just as easily seize on the president’s words to keep the case in Charlottesville.

“There’s not a person anywhere who probably didn’t hear Trump,” Kapil said. “So if even if are seeking a change of venue because of potential bias, I don’t know where you would move it.”

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  • Trump joins G7 leaders for a photo at the Ancient Greek17 of 82
  • Pope Francis greets Trump at the Vatican on May 24,18 of 82
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  • Trump meets with Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office22 of 82
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  • Trump pauses as he speaks at the Pennsylvania Farm24 of 82
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  • Trump prepares to award a Purple Heart to U.S. Army27 of 82
  • Trump waves as he and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin28 of 82
  • New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, President29 of 82
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  • Trump gestures as he surprises visitors during the44 of 82
  • Trump walks with grandchildren Arabella Kushner and45 of 82
  • Trump tours the Combat Direction Center on the pre-commissioned46 of 82
  • President Trump speaks before a joint session of Congress47 of 82
  • Trump holds up an executive order to bolster historically48 of 82
  • Trump reaches out to shake hands with Army Lt. Gen.49 of 82
  • The Trumps attend a campaign-style rally on Feb. 18,50 of 82
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  • Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu52 of 82
  • Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos attend a53 of 82
  • Trump looks on as Steven Mnuchin is sworn in as Treasury54 of 82
  • Trump meets with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau55 of 82
  • Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe listen56 of 82
  • President Trump speaks to Democratic and Republican57 of 82
  • Intel CEO Brian Krzanich speaks during a meeting with58 of 82
  • Trump holds up a gift given to him by county sheriffs59 of 82
  • President Trump has lunch with troops during a visit60 of 82
  • The Trumps watch the Super Bowl at a party at Trump61 of 82
  • The Trumps arrive for the 60th Annual Red Cross Gala62 of 82
  • White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Vice63 of 82
  • Trump shakes hands with Neil Gorsuch, his Supreme Court64 of 82
  • President Trump speaks on the phone with German Chancellor65 of 82
  • Trump shakes hands with Defense Secretary James Mattis66 of 82
  • Trump greets British Prime Minister Theresa May as67 of 82
  • Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn and Senate Majority68 of 82
  • Trump boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base69 of 82
  • Trump, accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence, gives70 of 82
  • Trump reads from one of the executive orders he signed71 of 82
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  • Trump speaks during a reception for House and Senate73 of 82
  • Trump signs executive actions in the Oval Office on74 of 82
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  • Trump speaks at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.,77 of 82
  • The Trumps and Pences attend the Freedom Ball on Jan.78 of 82
  • Trump is joined by the congressional leadership and79 of 82
  • Trump and Obama arrive for Trump's inauguration luncheon80 of 82
  • The Trumps and Obamas  stand on the steps of the  U.S.81 of 82
  • Trump delivers his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2017,82 of 82

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