An avowed supporter of neo-Nazi beliefs who took part in the violent and chaotic white-supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., last year was found guilty Friday of first-degree murder for killing a woman by ramming his car through a crowd of counterprotesters.
A jury of seven women and five men took just over seven hours to reach its decision that James Alex Fields Jr., 21, of Maumee, Ohio, acted with premeditation when he backed up his 2010 Dodge Challenger and then roared it down a narrow downtown street crowded with counterprotesters, slamming into them and another car.
Heather D. Heyer, 32, was killed and 35 others were injured, many grievously. Fields was also found guilty on eight counts of malicious wounding.
The deadly attack in the early afternoon of Aug. 12, 2017, culminated a dark 24 hours in the quiet college town. It was marked by a menacing torchlight march through the University of Virginia campus the night before, with participants shouting racist and anti-Semitic insults, and wild street battles on the morning of the planned rally between white supremacists and those opposing their ideology.
Many in their emboldened ranks shouted fascist slogans, displayed Nazi swastikas and Confederate battle flags and extended their arms in Sieg Heil salutes. Many also wore red Make America Great Again hats, saying they were encouraged in the public display of their beliefs by President Trump, who came under intense criticism when he said later that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the demonstration.
Fields’s conviction followed six days of testimony in Charlottesville Circuit Court, where Heyer’s deadly injuries were detailed and survivors of the crash described the chaos and their own injuries.
Jeanne Peterson, 38, who limped to the witness stand, said she’d had five surgeries and would have another next year. Wednesday Bowie, a counterprotester in her 20s, said her pelvis was broken in six places. Marcus Martin described pushing his then-fiancee out of the Challenger’s path before he was struck.
Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, sat near the front of the crowded courtroom every day watching the proceedings overseen by Judge Richard E. Moore. Fields’s mother, Samantha Bloom, sat in her wheelchair on the other side, an island in a sea of her son’s victims and their supporters.
For both prosecutors and Fields’s defense lawyers, the case was always about intent. Defense attorneys Denise Lunsford and John Hill did not deny Fields drove the car that killed Heyer and injured dozens. But they said it was not out of malice, rather out of fear for his own safety and confusion.
“He wasn’t angry, he was scared,” Lunsford told the jury in her closing argument.
Prosecutors, though, said Fields was enraged when he drove more than 500 miles from his apartment in Ohio to take part in the rally — and later chose to act on that anger by ramming his two-door muscle car into the crowd. They described Fields “idling, watching” in his Challenger on Fourth Street and surveying a diverse and joyous crowd of marchers a block and a half away that was celebrating the cancellation of the planned rally.
They showed video and presented witnesses testifying that there was no one around Fields’s car when he slowly backed it up the street and then raced it forward down the hill into the unsuspecting crowd. In her final address to the jury Thursday, Senior-Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina-Alice Antony showed a close-up of Fields in his car to rebut the idea that he was frightened when he acted.
“This is not the face of someone who is scared,” Antony said. “This is the face of anger, of hatred. It’s the face of malice.”
Jurors were shown a now-deleted Instagram post that Fields shared three months before the crash. “You Have the Right to Protest, But I’m Late for Work,” read the post, accompanied by an image of a car running into a group of people.
Jurors also saw a text exchange shortly before the rally in which Fields told his mother he was planning to attend, and she told him to be careful. “We’re not the one who need to be careful,” Fields replied in a misspelled text message on Aug. 11, 2017. He included an attachment: a meme showing Adolf Hitler.
Lunsford dismissed the significance of the Hitler photo and Fields’s Instagram post and asked the jury to ignore how they felt about Field’s political views when deciding whether to convict him.
After the verdict was read and the judge ended the proceedings, victims and their supporters hugged quietly, some crying softly. Bro embraced each of the prosecutors, followed by a line of well-wishers.
Later, activists gathered outside the courthouse to celebrate the verdict. They chanted “Whose streets? Our streets.”
Fields, who also was convicted of failure to stop at the accident, is set to return to court Monday for a sentencing hearing before the same jury. Bro said she would not comment until that phase of the proceeding has ended.
The guilty verdict for Fields is not the end. He still faces a federal trial on hate crimes that carries the possibility of the death penalty.