CHARLOTTESVILLE — An avowed neo-Nazi who killed one woman and injured 35 others when he plowed his car into a group of counterprotesters at an infamous white supremacist rally here pleaded guilty to hate crimes in federal court Wednesday.
James Alex Fields Jr., 25, of Ohio, was convicted on 29 of 30 counts as part of a deal with prosecutors, who agreed they would not seek the death penalty in a case that has come to symbolize the violent resurgence of white supremacy across the country.
Late last year, Fields convicted in state court and sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder and other counts for killing Heather D. Heyer, 32, and injuring dozens at the chaotic Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12, 2017.
Pleading guilty to hate crimes marks a dramatic shift for Fields, whose attorneys argued during his trial in state court that he sped toward the crowd out of fear for his safety and confusion. They said he immediately regretted his actions.
Fields entered the courtroom at the U.S. District courthouse in a gray and white striped jumpsuit and handcuffs, but spoke little during the hearing. He stood for most of the time.
Attorney General William Barr, who approved the plea deal, issued a statement after the hearing. The charges included one count of a hate crime act that resulted in the death of Heyer and 28 counts of hate crime acts that caused injury and involved an attempt to kill other people in the crowd. Each of the 29 counts carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
“In the aftermath of the mass murder in New Zealand earlier this month, we are reminded that a diverse and pluralistic community such as ours can have zero tolerance for violence on the basis of race, religion, or association with people of other races and religions, Barr said in the statement. “Prosecuting hate crimes is a priority for me as Attorney General.”
The violence in 2017 and President Trump’s comments afterward that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the Charlottesville rally sparked intense criticism and a fresh focus on the renewed forces of ethno-nationalism.
The events began on Aug. 11 when far-right groups mounted a torchlight march through the University of Virginia campus shouting “Jews will not replace us!” Fields was already on his way to Charlottesville, arriving the next day to protest the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue with hundreds of others from the far right.
The event generated national media attention after rallygoers carrying Nazi flags and shouting racial epithets clashed violently with counterprotesters. Police eventually dispersed the groups.
A short-time later, Fields was seen driving his gray Dodge Charger up to a group of counterprotesters on a narrow street. He slowly backed up and then accelerated down a hill directly into the group.
Harrowing video, which was played at Fields’ trial, shows protesters tumbling and screaming as the muscle car slams into the group. Fields then reverses at a high rate of speed, hitting and dragging others. Someone repeatedly says: “Oh god, Oh god.”
Heyer was killed, while others were seriously wounded. One woman who limped to the stand at Fields’ state trial testified she had five surgeries and was expecting a sixth. Another described a broken pelvis and a third how he pushed his fiance out of the way before he was hit by Fields’ car.
Fields, who a mental health expert testified suffered psychiatric issues from childhood and worked as a security guard, did not deny running into the crowd, but his attorneys argued that he acted to protect himself.
But prosecutors forcefully countered that argument and the jury at the six-day trial ultimately rejected it.
Jurors were shown a deleted Instagram post by Fields shared three months before that crash that featured a car running into a group of people. A caption read: “You Have the Right to Protest, But I’m Late for Work.”
A state prosecutor also showed a blown-up image of Fields in his car to counter the idea that he was scared when he acted.
“This is not the face of someone who is scared,” said Senior-Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina-Alice Antony. “This is the face of anger, of hatred. It’s the face of malice.”
After Fields was convicted on 10 counts, Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother said she was still having trouble grappling with the loss of her daughter.
“So many emotions, so many reactions, it’s really still hard to process,” she said, adding: “So we move forward. We still have social justice work to do. . . . The things Heather died for, I’m not seeing a lot of progress in the last year and a half.”
This is a developing story.