CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP/WHSV) — An avowed white supremacist who drove his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters during a white nationalist rally in Virginia has been sentenced to life in prison on hate crime charges.
In this Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017 photo, James Alex Fields Jr., second from left, holds a black shield in Charlottesville, Va., where a white supremacist rally took place. Fields was later charged with second-degree murder and other counts after authorities say he plowed a car into a crowd of people protesting the white nationalist rally. (Alan Goffinski via AP)
James Alex Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio, had pleaded guilty in March to 29 of 30 hate crimes in connection with the 2017 attack that killed Heather Heyer and injured more than two dozen others. In exchange, prosecutors dropped the charge that would have been punishable by death.
Prosecutors and Fields' lawyers agreed that federal sentencing guidelines called for a life sentence. But in a sentencing memo filed in court last week, his lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski to consider a sentence of "less than life," hoping he would take into account Fields' troubled childhood and mental health issues.
Before the sentencing, the 22-year-old Fields, accompanied by one of his lawyers, walked to a podium in the courtroom and apologized.
"Every day I think about how things could have gone differently and how I regret my actions," he said. "I'm sorry."
His comments came after more than a dozen survivors of and witnesses to the attack delivered emotional testimony about the physical and psychological wounds they had received as a result of the events that day.
"You had a choice to leave Charlottesville, but you did not," said Rosia Parker, a longtime civil rights activist in Charlottesville who said she was standing feet away from Heyer when she was struck by Fields' car.
"You could have done anything else but what you did," Parker said, her voice choking as she stared directly at Fields. "So, yeah, you deserve everything that you get."
Fields appeared stoic and didn't look at Parker or any of the victims as they spoke.
Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, said she wanted Fields to spend his life in prison but also hoped he would get the medication he needed and that one day he would change his views and no longer support white supremacy.
"I hope he can heal someday and help others heal," Bro said.
Fields drove from his home in Maumee, Ohio, to attend the "Unite the Right" rally on Aug. 12, 2017, which drew hundreds of white nationalists to Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Hundreds of counterprotesters showed up as well.
President Donald Trump sparked controversy when he blamed the violence at the rally on "both sides," a statement that critics saw as a refusal to condemn racism.
Prosecutors said Fields had a long history of racist and anti-Semitic behavior and had shown no remorse for his crimes. They said he is an avowed white supremacist, admired Adolf Hitler and even kept a picture of the Nazi leader on his bedside table.
During the sentencing hearing Friday, FBI Special Agent Wade Douthit said Fields "was like a kid at Disney World" during a high school trip to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
Douthit read grand jury testimony from a high school classmate of Fields who said Fields appeared happy and made the remark, "This is where the magic happened."
The statement provoked audible gasps from the crowd that had packed into the Charlottesville courtroom.
The classmate said when Fields viewed the camp's gas chamber he said, "It's almost like you can still hear them screaming."
Douthit said the classmate was so disgusted by Fields' remarks he stopped associating with him.
During Fields' state trial and in their sentencing memo, his attorneys focused on his history of mental illness and traumatic childhood.
A psychologist testified that Fields had inexplicable volatile outbursts as a young child, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 6 and was later diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder.
In a sentencing memo, defense attorneys said Fields was raised by a paraplegic single mother and suffered "trauma" knowing that his Jewish grandfather had slain his grandmother before taking his own life.
He will be sentenced next month on separate state charges, which could add additional life sentences. A jury recommended life plus 419 years.
Here's the Department of Justice's statement on exactly what happened during Fields' attack on August 12:
According to a statement of facts agreed to and signed by Fields, and entered into the court record at his guilty plea hearing, Fields admitted that he drove into the crowd of counter-protestors because of the actual and perceived race, color, national origin, and religion of its members. He further admitted that his actions killed Heather Heyer, and that he intended to kill the other victims he struck and injured with his car.
With regard to the details of the attack, Fields also admitted that, prior to Aug. 12, 2017, he used social media accounts to express and promote white supremacist views on his social media accounts; to express support of the social and racial policies of Adolf Hitler and Nazi-era Germany, including the Holocaust; and to espouse violence against African Americans, Jewish people, and members of other racial, ethnic, and religious groups he perceived to be non-white. Fields also expressed these views directly in interactions with individuals known to him.
Fields further admitted that, on Aug. 12, 2017, he attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia. That morning, multiple groups and individuals espousing white-supremacist ideology also attended the rally. These rally participants, including Fields, engaged in chants promoting or expressing white supremacist and other racist and anti-Semitic views.
Shortly before the scheduled start of the Unite the Right rally, law enforcement declared an “unlawful assembly” and required rally participants, including Fields, to disperse. Fields later returned to his vehicle and began to drive on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia.
Fields drove his car onto Fourth Street, a narrow, downhill, one-way street in downtown Charlottesville. At or around that same time, a racially and ethnically diverse crowd had gathered at the bottom of the hill, at the intersection of Fourth and Water Streets. Many of the individuals in the crowd were celebrating as they were chanting and carrying signs promoting equality and protesting against racial and other forms of discrimination. Fields slowly proceeded in his vehicle down Fourth Street toward the crowd. He then stopped and observed the crowd while idling in his vehicle. With no vehicle behind him, Fields then slowly reversed his vehicle toward the top of the hill.
At or around that same time, the members of the crowd began to walk up the hill, populating the streets and sidewalks between the buildings on Fourth Street. Having reversed his car to a point at or near the top of the hill and the intersection of Fourth and Market Streets, Fields stopped again. Fields admitted that he then rapidly accelerated forward down Fourth Street in his vehicle, running through a stop sign and across a raised pedestrian mall, and drove directly into the crowd. Fields’s vehicle stopped only when it struck another stopped vehicle near the intersection of Fourth and Water Streets. Fields then rapidly reversed his car and fled the scene. As Fields drove into and through the crowd, Fields struck numerous individuals, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 28 people nearby.