Susan Bro sat in a courtroom Monday and told a jury about the crippling grief that’s dogged her since her daughter was killed in a car attack by avowed neo-Nazi James A. Fields Jr.
Fields — who rammed his speeding Dodge Challenger into a crowd of anti-racism demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12, 2017 — sat silently at the defendant’s table she spoke.
Heather Heyer, 32, “was full of love, she was full of justice, she was full of fairness,” her mother said, and Fields “tried to silence” her.
“I refuse to allow that,” Bro testified in a strong but sometimes halting voice.
Bro was the prosecution’s fourth and final witness at the sentencing hearing for Fields, who was found guilty Friday of first-degree murder and other crimes for the 2017 act of homicidal vehicular rage.
“Almost all members of our family have gone into grief therapy as the darkness has tried to swallow us whole,” Bro said. Her daughter, who worked for a local law firm, had been described by friends as a committed advocate for social justice. “We are survivors,” Bro said, “but we are much sadder survivors. We are forever scarred by the pain.”
The same jury that convicted Fields in Charlottesville Circuit Court decided his punishment.
He was sentenced to life in prison Tuesday.
As he had throughout his two-week trial, Fields, 21, sat impassively at the defendant’s table, clad in a powder blue sweater, as the jury delivered its verdict at 12:20 p.m. after about four hours of deliberations that began Monday: life for first-degree murder; 70 years for each of five counts of aggravated malicious wounding; 20 years for each of three counts of malicious wounding; and nine years for leaving the scene of a fatal crash.
His overall sentence: life plus 419 years and $480,000 in fines.
Fields also faces a separate federal trial for alleged hate crimes related to the incident, including one offense that carries a possible death sentence. No trial date has been set, and the Justice Department has not said whether it will seek capital punishment. In the meantime, Fields will be held in a state penitentiary.
At his trial, which began Nov. 26, Fields, of Maumee, Ohio, did not deny plowing his car into a group of counterprotesters during the “Unite the Right” rally, at which hundreds of white supremacists and their opponents clashed in the streets. Fields’s attorneys contended that he was afraid for his safety that early afternoon and acted to protect himself. But the jury rejected the argument.
“I don’t hate Mr. Fields,” Bro said on the witness stand. “I’m leaving him in the hands of justice.”
The only defense witness in Monday’s penalty phase, Daniel Murrie, a University of Virginia psychologist, portrayed Fields as a lifelong loner and social misfit given to angry, uncontrollable outbursts since before he was old enough to walk. He was diagnosed as mentally ill at age 6 and was housed in psychiatric facilities for three stretches before his 15th birthday.
Murrie, who said he reviewed thousands of pages of Fields’s school and treatment records and spoke with him in jail for about 14 hours, described a deeply troubled young man. Some of the details were publicly known, but some had not been disclosed.
Fields’s father, who died in an auto accident shortly before Fields was born, suffered from bipolar disorder, Murrie said. He said both of Fields’s grandfathers, one of whom committed a murder-suicide, also were afflicted with the disorder.
Fields’s mother, paralyzed in a separate car crash, struggled to control her young son, often in vain, Murrie testified.
He said that Fields was “expelled from preschool” because of volatile behavior and that the problems continued through grade school and beyond. In addition to being diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 6, Fields displayed “autism-like symptoms” and was slowed by learning disabilities, Murrie said. By age 14, when he was diagnosed with “schizoid personality disorder,” Fields was taking a regimen of antipsychotic medications, he said.
“Those diagnoses are almost never given to kids,” Murrie said. “It’s very unusual.”
Before Murrie testified, three injured survivors described their physical and emotional wounds in harrowing detail to the seven women and five men of the jury.
“I’m going to try to explain it,” said a woman who has been identified in court only as Lisa Q. She suffered numerous shattered bones, crippling nerve damage and other injuries from which she has not recovered. “But there’s no way for anyone who wasn’t there to understand it,” she said. “It’s weird to tell your body to do something you’re used to doing and get no response at all.”
After recounting her 16 months of psychological unrest and painful physical therapy, she told the jury, “Today I can come close to making a fist.”
Jeanne Peterson arrived at the witness stand in a wheelchair after five surgeries on her crushed legs. She will undergo a sixth operation next year. Peterson was a friend of Heyer and saw her propelled into the air by Fields’s car.
“I will never forget the look in her eye,” said Peterson, who told the jury that she struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder “from witnessing a murder and surviving a terrorist attack.” She added, “I would go through this a million times over if I could take away the pain this has caused the people I love,” including her 7-year-old son, who “wrestles with questions I can’t answer.”
Another woman, Wednesday Bowie, whose pelvis was broken in six places, told the jury: “I am not the person I was before August 12th. I will never be that person again.” And she said, “Please know that the world is not a safe place with Mr. Fields in it.”
Then Bro took the witness stand.
She said that when her daughter was hit by Fields’s speeding Dodge, the impact severed Heyer’s aorta and left her “skin and blood on the windshield of that car.” Her thighs were shattered, among other injuries, and “she bled out internally in just a few seconds,” she said.
Bro noted that she has been unable to return to work since Aug. 12, 2017.