By Gary Robertson
(Reuters) - Lawyers for the white nationalist on trial for murder after plowing his car into a crowd protesting a right-wing rally in Virginia began their case on Wednesday with testimony to back up his defense that he felt endangered by the counterprotesters.
James Fields, 21, does not dispute being at the wheel of the car that killed a woman and injured others protesting the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 21, 2017. Field has said he acted in self-defense, and his lawyers called on the testimony of a man who also attended the rally and said he felt afraid.
The violent chaos at the rally became a pivotal moment in the resurgence of white nationalist fringe groups in the United States.
The first defense witness, Hayden Calhoun, told the jury he had attended the rally with his girlfriend. He said he met Fields for the first time the night before the car incident, when men with torches marched in a park, chanting anti-Semitic slogans.
"The area had erupted in violence," Calhoun said. "There was a brawl going on. Tear gas had been deployed."
Calhoun said he and his girlfriend feared being attacked by counterprotesters.
After meeting Fields and a fourth rally attendee, Calhoun said he and his girlfriend, seeing safety in numbers, decided to walk with them. He described Field's demeanor the night before he drove into the crowd as "calm, tired."
In cross-examination, Calhoun told prosecutors that, despite their fears, there were "no physical attacks" on Calhoun or the other people with him.
Fields was one of hundreds of white nationalists who descended on Charlottesville that week to protest the planned removal of a statue honoring the U.S. Civil War-era Confederacy from a public park.
Earlier this week, jurors heard that the day before going to Charlottesville, Fields exchanged cellphone text messages with his mother suggesting the counterprotesters would "need to be careful," and sent her an image of Adolf Hitler.
After his arrest, Fields broke down in tears at the police station upon learning he had killed someone, according to video footage shown to the jury.
Fields, faces 10 charges for his role in the violence, including murder, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison if he is convicted.
Fields also faces separate federal hate crime charges, which carry a potential death sentence. He has pleaded not guilty in that case as well.
(Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis)