'Unite the Right' rally killer pleads guilty to federal charges, avoids death penalty

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WHSV) — UPDATE (March 27):

James Alex Fields, Jr., 20, of Maumee, Ohio was arrested on suspicion of second-degree murder, and the car that rammed into the Charlottesville rally, Photo Date: 8/12/2017 / Photo: Abermarle Charlottesville Regional Jail / (MGN)

James Alex Fields, Jr., who was convicted in December of first-degree murder for his car attack during the 2017 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville, has pleaded guilty to 29 federal hate crime charges.

Fields originally pleaded not guilty to 30 charges, which are separate from his Virginia conviction.

The federal charges could have come with the possibility of the death penalty, but the plea agreement he entered in federal court on Wednesday drops the charge that would have been punishable by death.

Each of the 29 charges comes with a maximum penalty of life in prison.

The courtroom was filled with several people who had been injured in the car attack and Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer. Fields had to answer questions about his competence, and he said he was making the decision of his own free will. He appeared stoic, with hands folded in front of him for much of the hearing, and did not express any remorse.

He did not speak, except to repeatedly respond "yes, sir," when U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski asked him if he was pleading guilty knowingly and voluntarily.

According to the Department of Justice, Fields admitted that he drove into the crowd of people on Aug. 12 based on the "actual and perceived race, color, national origin, and religion of its members."

He also admitted that he intended to kill the other people he struck and not just Heather Heyer.

The plea deal had to be approved by U.S. Attorney General William Barr, and prosecutors obtained that approval.

“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,” Attorney Barr said. “Prosecuting hate crimes is a priority for me as Attorney General. The defendant in this case has pled guilty to 29 hate crimes which he committed by driving his car into a crowd of protesters. These hate crimes are also acts of domestic terrorism. I want to thank the FBI for leading this investigation along with our partners with the Charlottesville Police Department and the Virginia State Police. I also want to thank Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband and our Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney Cullen and his office for their hard work in reaching today's guilty plea, which brings us one step closer to bringing the defendant to justice. We will continue to vigorously prosecute violent crimes of hate and we will not allow violence to supplant our pluralism.”

You can find the full press release from the Department of Justice laying out the details of the case at the bottom of this article.

His December trial on the state level resulted in convictions for first-degree murder, multiple counts of malicious wounding, and leaving the scene of an accident. Jurors recommended life in prison, but his sentencing was delayed earlier this month.

In the two-week trial last year, the commonwealth argued the case was about intent. Prosecutors said Fields used his car as a deadly weapon and that he acted with malice, intent and premeditation.

Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina-Alice Antony said Fields acted with hatred, and that same hatred can be seen in text messages sent to his mother before the rally. She told him to be careful and Fields replied with “we are not the ones who need to be careful” alongside a picture of Adolf Hitler.

Photo evidence was released in December, including Fields in a convenience store with Joshua Matthews, and a young couple from the Richmond area. They were all together less than an hour before the crash. Fields dropped them off at their car, and they said no to going to lunch.

Antony said in December that it was important for jurors to see that Fields had an intent to harm others, making a decision to act of “ill will, hate and anger.”

Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, said during testimony that her daughter’s death was like an “explosion” in her family. She said Fields tried to “silence” her daughter with his car, and said: “I refuse to allow that.”

Jurors recommended life in prison for the murder charge, 70 years for each count of aggravated malicious wounding (5 counts), 20 years for each count of malicious wounding (3 counts) and nine years for hit and run.

The Unite the Right rally had been organized in part to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville. Hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis and other white nationalists streamed into the college town for one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists in a decade. Some dressed in battle gear.

Press release from the Department of Justice on Fields' guilty plea:

James Alex Fields Jr., 21, the Ohio man who drove his car into a diverse crowd of counter-protestors on Aug. 12, 2017, killing one woman and injuring dozens, pleaded guilty today in U.S. District Court to 29 counts of violating the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, 18 U.S.C. § 249. The charges included one count of a hate crime act that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, and 28 counts of hate crime acts that caused bodily injury and involved an attempt to kill other people within the crowd. Each of the 29 counts carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000. Attorney General William P. Barr, FBI Director Christopher Wray, United States Attorney Thomas T. Cullen, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband, and Special Agent in Charge David Archey of the FBI’s Richmond Division made the announcement.

“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,” Attorney General William P. Barr said. “Prosecuting hate crimes is a priority for me as Attorney General. The defendant in this case has pled guilty to 29 hate crimes which he committed by driving his car into a crowd of protesters. These hate crimes are also acts of domestic terrorism. I want to thank the FBI for leading this investigation along with our partners with the Charlottesville Police Department and the Virginia State Police. I also want to thank Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband and our Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney Cullen and his office for their hard work in reaching today's guilty plea, which brings us one step closer to bringing the defendant to justice. We will continue to vigorously prosecute violent crimes of hate and we will not allow violence to supplant our pluralism.”

“The violence in Charlottesville was an act of hate, and everyone across the country felt the impact," said FBI Director Christopher Wray. "This guilty plea underscores that we won’t stand for hate and violence in our communities. Together with our law enforcement and community partners, we’ll continue to aggressively investigate hate crimes, domestic terrorism and civil rights violations.”

“The defendant’s hate-inspired act of domestic terrorism not only devastated Heather Heyer’s wonderful family and the 28 peaceful protestors who were injured at the intersection of Fourth and Water Streets, but it also left an indelible mark on the City of Charlottesville, our state, and our country,” U.S. Attorney Cullen stated today. “Although the defendant’s guilty plea cannot undo the pain, suffering, and loss that he caused, it is my hope that it will enable these victims and our community to continue the healing process.”

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.

The investigation of the case was led by the FBI and supported by the Charlottesville Police Department and Virginia State Police. United States Attorney Thomas T. Cullen, Assistant United States Attorney Christopher Kavanaugh, and Trial Attorney Risa Berkower with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice are prosecuting the case for the United States.