White Supremacist Found Guilty In Murder Of Charlottesville Counter-Protester

The white supremacist charged with killing a counter-protester during last year's events in Charlottesville has been convicted of first-degree murder.

More than a year and a half after it happened, white supremacist James Fields has been convicted of the murder of Heather Heyer during the protests in Charlottesville by a coalition of far-right groups:

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Sixteen months after swastika-toting white supremacists swarmed the streets of Charlottesville, one of the demonstrators was convicted of first-degree murder Friday by a jury that found he intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one woman and injuring nearly 40 others.

James Fields Jr., 21, faces up to life in prison for the death of Heather Heyer, 32, in a case that has stirred soul-searching in a city that prides itself on being a liberal bastion. Mr. Fields, who traveled from Ohio to attend the Unite the Right rally, was also convicted of nine other charges, including aggravated malicious wounding and leaving the scene of a fatal accident.

Friday’s verdict was cheered by those fighting racial and religious hatred and provided some closure in a case that cast a national spotlight on Charlottesville, the scene chosen by racists and anti-Semites to rally for their cause, near a Confederate monument that some city leaders were trying to remove.

“This verdict sends a strong message to others that hate has no place in our society,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League.

The attack, in which Mr. Fields sped down a narrow street teeming with counterprotesters, was a deadly coda to a weekend of white nationalist events in Charlottesville last August, which included a pre-rally march with torches to the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the campus of the University of Virginia. The rally was marked by violent clashes between counterprotesters and white nationalists, some of whom were convicted earlier this year.

Many of Mr. Fields’s victims had confronted ralliers earlier that day and were on their way home, celebrating the fact that authorities had shut down the event, when they were struck by his Dodge Challenger.

Mr. Fields showed no emotion and sat subdued between his lawyers as a clerk read the unanimous verdicts and polled the jury of seven women and five men, including one African-American man. At one point, Mr. Fields glanced back toward his mother, who, dressed in black and sitting in a wheelchair, sobbed quietly into a tissue. Judge Richard E. Moore of Charlottesville Circuit Court affirmed the verdicts, but made no comment.

His victims sobbed, hugged, and softly cheered inside the crowded courtroom. Several joined in a group hug around Star Peterson, a single mother whose legs and back were broken in the crash. Constance Paige Young, who was also injured, said the guilty verdicts and a coming federal hate crime trial would “set a precedent that this white nationalist violence that has been present since this nation’s inception is no longer tolerable.”

The nine-day trial featured days of emotional testimony from victims who were seriously injured in the crash, including Ms. Peterson and Marcus Martin, who pushed his girlfriend out of the way, bearing the brunt of the impact himself. He later married her. Many of the victims returned to the courtroom day after day to listen to other witnesses, and jurors saw them hugging and comforting one another.

(…)

During the trial, prosecutors introduced evidence that Mr. Fields intended to commit harm when he drove from Ohio to attend the rally. In a text message exchange with his mother, she told him to be careful. “We’re not the one[s] who need to be careful,” he replied in a message that also included a photo of Adolf Hitler.

Prosecutors also showed the jury a cartoon that Mr. Fields had shared months earlier on Instagram of a car ramming into a crowd, with the words, “You have the right to protest but I’m late for work.” Other evidence included recordings of conversations that Mr. Fields had with his mother after his arrest, in which he described the counterprotesters at the rally as a “violent gang of terrorists,” and derided Ms. Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, as an “anti-white liberal” who should be viewed as an enemy.

Mr. Fields’s defense lawyers did not dispute that he drove his car into the crowd, but claimed that he “acted out of fear” rather than malice, highlighting the scuffles and clashes that took place earlier that day between Unite the Right participants and anti-racism activists.

“There’s no evidence he came prepared to do any harm,” said John Hill, a defense lawyer, during the trial. The defense called Dwayne Dixon, an anti-racism activist, to testify, and he acknowledged shouting at a gray car while he had an AR-15 rifle slung over his shoulder.

But video footage from that day showed Mr. Fields’s car idling and then backing up before it plowed ahead into the crowd.

Jurors were visibly moved by testimony of victims describing the crash. Mr. Fields drove away — a sneaker still stuck in the grill of the car — and was stopped on a road heading out of town. In a conversation with a police officer, his voice flat and calm, he said, “I didn’t want to hurt people, but I thought they were attacking me.” When he was told that a person died and many were injured, he gasped and sobbed.

A prosecutor, Nina-Alice Antony, argued that Mr. Fields clearly had “specific intent to kill a human being,” even if he had not singled out any particular person in the crowd.

As required by Virginia law, Fields will be sentenced after a sentencing hearing before the same jury that just convicted him and could face the death penalty or life in prison without parole. The Judge has some limited authority to modify the sentence after the Jury has rendered it, but that authority is extremely limited and, in this case, it’s unlikely that he would take such a measure in this case anyway. In addition to the state criminal charges, Fields was also indicted on Federal hate crimes charges which remain on hold pending the outcome of his state trial. Under Federal law, he also faces the possibility of the death penalty or life without parole in Federal prison if convicted. With this conviction, of course, the outcome of his trial in Federal Court seems to be inevitable, so it’s possible that he could seek to plead guilty in Federal Court to avoid a trial, although that likely won’t have much of an impact on his ultimate sentence.

In addition to the murder of Heather Heyer, the rally in Charlottesville and subsequent violence committed by the so-called “alt-right” participants in what was supposed to be a protest in support of a statue of Robert E. Lee that the city of Charlottesville had proposed removing became known for the manner in which President Trump responded to said violence. The event itself had clear overtones of a Nazi rally at Nuremberg in the 1930s. The night before Ms. Heyer’s death was marked by Nazi-era slogans like “Blood and Soil!” and “The Jews will not replace us!” were chanted by torch-bearing men, followed by a rally the following day that resulted in violence between participants and counter-protestors that led to the death of one woman and more than a dozen injuries. These events, of course, took on a national tone thanks to the President’s response to the tragic events of that Saturday. In his initial response, Trump blamed ‘both sides’ for the violence, referred to the participants in the rally as “very fine people,” and  refused to directly condemn groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which was present at the rally, or the broader so-called alt-right movement whose supporters made up the vast majority of the participants. The outrage over these comments was sufficiently broad, even from fellow Republicans in Washington, that the White House was compelled to have Trump deliver a follow-up comment the following Monday that was more measured and emphatic than what he had said before. Whatever damage had been repaired by that statement, though, was short-lived, though, because less than twenty-four hours later Trump repeated his ‘both sides’ argument in a press conference at Trump Tower in New York and then repeated it again a month later in the wake of a meeting purportedly intended to discuss race with Republican Senator Tim Scott, the only African-American Republican in the Senate. A year later, it was clear that the President still didn’t get what was wrong about the protest itself or how he responded to it.

In any case, Fields’s conviction was never really in doubt and I honestly can’t say I really care all that much about whether or not he gets the death penalty notwithstanding the fact that I generally oppose it universally. Neither his death nor a life term in prison are going to bring Heather Heyer back, of course, but one can hope that bringing someone like Fields to justice will send a message that his kind of hate-based violence is not going to be tolerated in modern America regardless of who the President happens to be.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, Race and Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    I really don’t get what the Tiki Torch Troglodytes are worried about. There are very few Jews willing to take up the banner of antisemitism.

  2. Stormy Dragon says:

    So is the Fuhrer going to pardon one of his “very fine people on both sides”?

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  3. Kathy says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    That depends, can he run for governor of Virginia from Federal prison?

  4. Kylopod says:

    @Kathy: True, but “Steve Miller will not replace us!” just doesn’t have quite the right rhythm.

  5. Mister Bluster says:

    If this vile citizen is executed, Cindy-Hyde Smith should volunteer to be a witness to his demise.

  6. skeeter says:

    Isn’t he really just a racist democrat. The white supremacy seems a stretch how about just a racist that fits much better.

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  7. JohnMcC says:

    Never looked up someone’s resume and such on the internet before. Thought we should have an idea who he is. From Everipedia (I have no idea if that’s a good site for this kind of stuff but it seems straight up):

    James Alex Fields (born 4/26/97) is a resident of Maumee, OH. He was born in Kenton, KY to Samantha Bloom. His father was killed by a drunk driver a few months before he was born. He is registered to vote in Lucas Co, OH. He is a registered Republican. His FBook is full of pictures of meme culture and the alt-right, pictures of Pepe and Wojak, a Trump ‘Make America Great Again Banner’ and an Assad meme. He is a big fan of Nazi memorabilia, Adolf Hitler and Nazism. In High School, he wrote a paper that was described as a love-fest for the German military and the Waffen SS.

    Can’t wait for my granddaughter to bring such a fine young man home! Where he will meet a purple heart veteran and gun owner who knows what to do about rats, roaches and Nazis.

    Seriously, there has been no change in the moral climate of the world since 1945 as far as Nazis are concerned. As Tyrel would say “Judgement at Nuremburg”.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    ‘Skeetr” is one dumb bot.

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  9. JohnMcC says:

    @Michael Reynolds: My thought was the same; probably the same chip that produces 1-American. But I actually was kind of curious about Mr Fields’ history and such. No surprises there when I looked of course. But I thought I’d share – Momma taught me to do that.

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  10. Kylopod says:

    @JohnMcC: I am currently in the middle of a book that is an investigative piece on American neo-Nazis and their ilk, written by a sociologist who kind of went undercover to study these groups from around the mid-1990s to mid-2000s. Of course, it predates the rise of Obama, Trump, and the alt-right, all of which had a profound impact on the movement.

  11. Gustopher says:

    @Kylopod: one of the most formative books I have read was “Harvest of Rage” by Joel Dyer. It was about the Oklahoma City bombing, and the conspiracy theorists and depressed rural folks and white supremacists of the time. I don’t know that it was a particularly good book on the subject, but it helped me understand how all of this was connected.

    I think it’s a fine line between McVeigh and these folks, just a matter of who pointed them to a cause to blame.

    And dedication. McVeigh had a whole lot more dedication.

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  12. Kylopod says:

    @Gustopher:

    I think it’s a fine line between McVeigh and these folks

    Fine line? McVeigh was a collector of The Turner Diaries, a popular white supremacist tract.

    What a lot of people don’t understand is that there’s a range of closely related radical-right movements, and in some of them white supremacy isn’t quite in the foreground but somewhere in the background. The militia movements, the Oath Keepers, the sovereign citizens are far-right groups defined by a basic rejection of the authority of the federal government, but whenever you encounter people with those sorts of beliefs, hatred of minorities is usually not far behind–as Fox News discovered with Cliven Bundy. Even when they’re not explicitly racist, they often run in the same circles as the white nationalists.

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  13. KM says:

    @Kylopod :

    What a lot of people don’t understand is that there’s a range of closely related radical-right movements, and in some of them white supremacy isn’t quite in the foreground but somewhere in the background.

    What usually ties it all together is the notion We are losing and They are taking from Us. They can vary as the situation requires but Us is always people exactly like the believer and how they self-identify. Since you’re always the hero of your own story, others like you must be heroic too and share your values.

    The main definition trait on the alt-right lately has been grievance. They carry the belief that their cultural heritage (the one they made up, not necessarily the actual or accurate one they were born to) is the best and thus should be the norm by which all things are judged….. and the world has the *nerve* to say otherwise. Live in the middle of nowhere with limited, localized government and can theoretically do as you please if the sheriff looks the other way? Of course you’ll resent a larger government that’s the boss of you no matter where you live and universal standards that hold you no better then any other citizen. Think that your rural culture with it’s close-knit particular ways, stringent religious beliefs and lack of diversity in *anything* is normal because that’s how everyone you know grew up? Of course you’ll resent being told there’s other, possibly better ways to live and that there’s flaws in how you see the world. Everybody you know is white and the only non-whites you see happen to be taking the few jobs in your dying town? Yeah, the odds of you not having a touch of white nationalism are pretty low.

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  14. Kylopod says:

    @KM:

    What usually ties it all together is the notion We are losing and They are taking from Us. They can vary as the situation requires but Us is always people exactly like the believer and how they self-identify.

    On the modern American right at least, “they” always ends up being one or both of the following: (1) The federal govt (2) The Jooz.

    (1) is why radical anti-government groups are so often thinly veiled racist groups. (2) is why the caravan story inspired a guy to shoot up a synagogue in Pennsylvania.

  15. JohnMcC says:

    @KM: There is an insightful article in VOX this morning (by Ezra Klein – whom long may he wave!) which is a counter-argument to Andrew Sullivan’s most recent NYMag piece. Andrew blames (you will be shocked!) liberalism and it’s lack of religious — particularly Andrew’s religion — moderation and respect for human dignity for the tribalism of our present politics. Ho hum….

    Ezra points out that periods where the social/political milieu seems at it’s most stable and is looked back upon as most agreeable by conservatives are periods that minorities have been least secure. He notes that the period of Jim Crow followed the Compromise of 1877 which was supposed to ‘solve’ the disrupting ‘problem’ of Reconstruction and so on.

    Definitely worth reading on this general topic of how when “we” are losing out to “them” it’s a crisis in which reaching for the gun is a reasonable and patriotic thing to do.