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Opening statements begin in trial of the man accused of killing pedestrian during the Charlottesville protests

By Madeline Holcombe, Eliott C. McLaughlin and Jason Hanna, CNN

(CNN) -- Opening statements are expected to begin Thursday in the state trial of a man accused of killing counterprotester Heather Heyer last year at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that put the city and the country on edge.

Judge Richard Moore, who has allotted 18 days for the trial, said opening statements will start after the jury is finalized when court resumes Thursday morning. Jury selection began on Monday.

James Alex Fields Jr. is accused of plowing his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counterprotesters during the August 2017 Unite the Right rally, killing Heyer and injuring several others. The incident followed a period of racially charged violence in Charlottesville and sparked national outrage.

Heyer, 32, was a local paralegal who attended the rally to speak out against white supremacy and racism.

Her friends and family have said she died for her beliefs. Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, told CNN's Jason Carroll she would be at court every day and wanted to see all the evidence against Fields come out.

Fields is charged with first-degree murder in Heyer's death. He also faces five counts of malicious wounding, three counts of aggravated malicious wounding and one count of failing to stop at an accident involving a death.

Separately, he is charged with hate crimes in a 30-count federal indictment. Prosecutors in that case allege Fields espoused white supremacist ideals and denounced minorities on social media before traveling to Virginia for the rally. Once there, the indictment says, he drove his car into a crowd with the intention of hurting people he targeted based on his bigoted views.

The 21-year-old has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges. It's unclear whether he has entered a plea to the state charges, though a trial would not likely be necessary if he had pleaded guilty.

His attorney, Denise Lunsford, did not return an email seeking comment. Fields is being held without bail in the Albemarle/Charlottesville Regional Jail.

Jury selection 'most complicated,' judge says

Attorneys completed their questioning of prospective jurors on Wednesday. A panel of 16 jurors -- including four alternates -- is expected to be finalized Thursday.

Moore called it "the most complicated jury selection" he has participated in over 37 years as an attorney and six as a judge.

He acknowledged Wednesday that someone is conducting robocalls related to the case and warned prospective jurors to hang up if they receive one.

Moore previously denied Fields' defense team's request to move the trial out of Charlottesville, according to CNN affiliate WVIR. Fields' lawyers had argued that the community is too connected to Heyer's death and other violence from the Unite the Right rally to provide a pool of objective jurors.

"Despite careful (jury selection)," Fields' defense team argued in a motion, "potential jurors' resilience in their attempts to move forward may easily develop into prejudice against Fields, a prejudice that will be unlikely recognized by those affected and difficult, if not impossible, to ferret out."

The prosecution rebutted that pretrial publicity is no reason to change the venue.

The trial is expected to bring intense interest. In anticipation, Moore has established several rules and made arrangements to accommodate reporters and the public. He also has banned bags, signs and electronic devices from the courthouse.

The defense's arguments

During jury selection on Monday, the defense told prospective jurors that the court will hear evidence that Fields "thought he was acting in self-defense," WVIR reported.

The defense team also asked juror candidates if they believe violence is justified when acting in self-defense, according to WVIR.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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