State trial likely first for man charged in deadly car at­tack

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - LOCAL PERSPECTIVES - BY DENISE LAVOIE

A state trial will likely be held for a man ac­cused in a deadly car at­tack on protesters op­pos­ing a white na­tion­al­ist rally in Vir­ginia be­fore he’s tried on fed­eral hate crime charges that carry a pos­si­ble death penalty.

In a joint mo­tion filed Thurs­day, fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors and 21-year-old James Alex Fields Jr.’s de­fense at­tor­neys said they need time to pre­pare for the “com­plex” fed­eral case.

The two sides also said the state trial — sched­uled to be­gin Nov. 26 — and its out­come “may pro­vide in­for­ma­tion that is ma­te­rial” to a de­ter­mi­na­tion by U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions whether to seek the death penalty in the fed­eral case.

Fields, of Maumee, Ohio, is ac­cused of killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and in­jur­ing dozens of peo­ple on Aug. 12 af­ter the “Unite the Right” rally in Char­lottesville by driv­ing his car into a crowd demon­strat­ing against the rally. The event at­tracted hun­dreds of white na­tion­al­ists to the col­lege town where of­fi­cials planned to re­move a statue of Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Fields faces mur­der and other charges un­der Vir­ginia law. Last week, he was in­dicted on 30 fed­eral charges. Twen­ty­nine of the counts were brought un­der a hate crimes law that car­ries a max­i­mum penalty of life in prison.

The 30th count was brought un­der a pro­vi­sion of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. It ac­cuses Fields of racially mo­ti­vated vi­o­lent in­ter­fer­ence with a fed­er­ally protected ac­tiv­ity — the use of the pub­lic streets and side­walks of Char­lottesville — re­sult­ing in death.

The charge can carry the death penalty. Pros­e­cu­tors have not de­cided whether to seek it, and the process could take months.

The law re­quires pros­e­cu­tors to prove not only that Fields acted be­cause of the ac­tual or per­ceived race or na­tional origin of mem­bers of the crowd, but also that he was mo­ti­vated by Heyer’s use of the streets and side­walks of Char­lottesville.

Robert Dunham, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Death Penalty In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter, said he be­lieves fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors have agreed to let the state put Fields on trial first be­cause it’s a stretch for them to try to use the hate crimes statute that makes him el­i­gi­ble for the death penalty.

“It makes sense for them to wait un­til af­ter the state trial be­cause as the facts stand right now, it’s an ex­tremely ten­u­ous death penalty claim,” Dunham said.

“The fact that some­thing is la­beled a hate crime doesn’t by it­self make it a cap­i­tal of­fense. There has to be more. The way the statute is writ­ten, on the facts of this case, it’s not clear that there is any ba­sis to seek the death penalty.”

But Jonathan Tur­ley, a pro­fes­sor at the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity Law School, said he be­lieves the de­ci­sion to hold the state trial first is a good strate­gic move by pros­e­cu­tors.

“The state is likely to pro­duce a great deal of ev­i­dence that the fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors do not cur­rently have. In par­tic­u­lar, they will be able to see the ev­i­dence mar­shaled by the de­fense as to the state of mind of Fields,” Tur­ley said.

Fields pleaded not guilty Thurs­day to the fed­eral charges.


Pros­e­cu­tors say James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of coun­ter­protesters at the rally in Char­lottesville.


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