Man con­victed of first-de­gree mur­der for driv­ing into Char­lottesville coun­ter­protest

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - NEWS -

A man who drove his car into a crowd of coun­ter­protesters at a white-na­tion­al­ist rally in Vir­ginia was con­victed on Fri­day of first­de­gree mur­der for killing a woman in an at­tack that in­flamed long-sim­mer­ing racial and po­lit­i­cal ten­sions across the United States.

A state jury re­jected ar­gu­ments that James Alex Fields Jr. acted in self-de­fence dur­ing a “Unite the Right” rally in Char­lottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. Ju­rors also con­victed Mr. Fields of eight other charges, in­clud­ing ag­gra­vated ma­li­cious wound­ing and hit and run.

Mr. Fields, 21, drove to Vir­ginia from his home in Maumee, Ohio, to sup­port the white na­tion­al­ists. As a large group of coun­ter­protesters marched through Char­lottesville singing and laugh­ing, he stopped his car, backed up, then sped into the crowd, ac­cord­ing to tes­ti­mony from wit­nesses and video sur­veil­lance shown to ju­rors.

Pros­e­cu­tors told the jury Mr. Fields was an­gry af­ter wit­ness­ing violent clashes be­tween the two sides ear­lier in the day. The vi­o­lence prompted po­lice to shut down the rally be­fore it even of­fi­cially be­gan.

Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old para­le­gal and civil-rights ac­tivist, was killed, and nearly three dozen oth­ers were in­jured. The trial fea­tured emo­tional tes­ti­mony from sur­vivors who de­scribed dev­as­tat­ing in­juries and long, com­pli­cated re­cov­er­ies.

The rally had been or­ga­nized in part to protest the planned re­moval of a statue of Con­fed­er­ate Gen­eral Robert E. Lee. 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.

Af­ter­ward, U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in­flamed ten­sions fur­ther when he said “both sides” were to blame, a com­ment some saw as a re­fusal to con­demn racism.

Ac­cord­ing to one of his for­mer teach­ers, Mr. Fields was known in high school for be­ing fas­ci­nated with Nazism and idol­iz­ing Adolf Hitler. Ju­rors were shown a text mes­sage he sent to his mother days be­fore the rally that in­cluded an im­age of the no­to­ri­ous Ger­man dic­ta­tor. When his mother pleaded with him to be care­ful, he replied: “we’re not the one [sic] who need to be care­ful.”

Dur­ing one of two recorded phone calls Mr. Fields made to his mother from jail in the months af­ter he was ar­rested, he told her he had been mobbed “by a violent group of ter­ror­ists” at the rally. In an­other, Mr. Fields re­ferred to the mother of the woman who was killed as a “com­mu­nist” and “one of those anti-white su­prem­a­cists.”

Pros­e­cu­tors also showed ju­rors a meme Mr. Fields posted on In­sta­gram three months be­fore the rally in which bod­ies are shown be­ing thrown into the air af­ter a car hits a crowd of peo­ple iden­ti­fied as pro­test­ers.

But Mr. Fields’s lawyers told the jury that he drove into the crowd on the day of the rally be­cause he feared for his life and was “scared to death” by ear­lier vi­o­lence he had wit­nessed. A video of Mr. Fields be­ing in­ter­ro­gated af­ter the crash showed him sob­bing and hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing af­ter he was told a woman had died and oth­ers were se­ri­ously in­jured.

The jury will re­con­vene Mon­day to de­ter­mine a sen­tence. Un­der the law, ju­rors can rec­om­mend from 20 years to life in prison.

Mr. Fields is el­i­gi­ble for the death penalty if con­victed of sep­a­rate fed­eral hate-crime charges. No trial has been sched­uled yet.

The jury re­jected ar­gu­ments that James Alex Fields Jr. acted in self-de­fence dur­ing a ‘Unite the Right’ rally.

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