Mur­der con­vic­tion for ‘face of ha­tred’

Self-pro­fessed neo-Nazi guilty in Char­lottesville car-ram­ming death

Toronto Star - - WORLD - JOE HEIM AND KRISTINE PHILLIPS THE WASH­ING­TON POST

CHAR­LOTTESVILLE, VA.— An avowed sup­porter of neo-Nazi be­liefs who took part in the violent and chaotic white su­prem­a­cist “Unite the Right” rally in this city 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 be­gan de­lib­er­at­ing Fri­day morn­ing and took just over seven hours to reach its de­ci­sion that James 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 Heyer, 32, was killed and 35 oth­ers in­jured, many griev­ously.

The deadly at­tack in the early af­ter­noon of Aug. 12, 2017, cul­mi­nated a dark 24 hours in this 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.

As the sounds and im­ages of bru­tal beat­ings, blood­ied faces and hate-filled chants spread across the coun­try and around the world, this city be­came iden­ti­fied with the emer­gence of a new or­der of white supremacy that no longer felt com­pelled to hide in the shad­ows or the safety of on­line anonymity.

Many in their em­bold­ened ranks shouted fas­cist slo­gans, dis­played Nazi swastikas and Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flags and ex­tended their arms in Sieg Heil salutes. And many also wore red Make Amer­ica Great Again hats, say­ing they were en­cour­aged in the pub­lic dis­play of their be­liefs by U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who later that week would say there were “very fine peo­ple” on both sides of the demon­stra­tion.

Fields’ 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 with the help of bailiffs, 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 Moore. Fields’ 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’ de­fence 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.

They said he re­gret­ted his ac­tions im­me­di­ately, and pointed the jury to his re­peated pro­fes­sions of sor­row shortly af­ter his ar­rest and his un­con­trol­lable sob­bing when he learned of the in­juries and death he had caused.

“He wasn’t an­gry, he was scared,” Lunsford told the jury in her closing ar­gu­ment.

Early in the trial, the de­fence said there would be tes­ti­mony from wit­nesses con­cern­ing Fields’ mental health, but those wit­nesses were never brought for­ward.

Pros­e­cu­tors, though, said Fields was en­raged when he drove more than 800 kilo­me­tres 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’ 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.

As he looked down the crowded street, Fields saw a chance, Antony told the jury, to “make his In­sta­gram post a re­al­ity.”

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’ In­sta­gram post and asked the jury to ig­nore how they felt about Field’s po­lit­i­cal views when de­cid­ing whether to con­vict him.

“You can’t do that based on the fact that he holds ex­treme right-wing views,” she said. April Mu­niz, 50, was on Fourth Street when Fields drove into the crowd. She es­caped phys­i­cal in­jury but is still trau­ma­tized by wit­ness­ing the violent act and see­ing so many peo­ple she was cel­e­brat­ing with one mo­ment suf­fer hor­rific in­juries the next. Mu­niz at­tended ev­ery day of the pro­ceed­ings and said the trial helped her “pull the shat­tered pieces of that day to­gether.”

The guilty ver­dict for Fields is not the end of his le­gal trou­bles. He still faces a fed­eral trial on hate crimes that car­ries the pos­si­bil­ity of the death penalty.

And the guilty ver­dict does not bring an end to this city’s misery. The legacy of that hate­filled week­end hangs over the city, a cloud that refuses to blow away. The phys­i­cal and psy­chic in­juries are slow to fade. The trial sur­faced painful me­mories and emo­tions for many in this small city who were in the streets that day or have friends and ac­quain­tances who were in­jured.

The city be­came the fo­cal point for white su­prem­a­cists when city coun­cil mem­bers voted to re­move stat­ues of Con­fed­er­ate gen­er­als Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jack­son from down­town parks. The stat­ues were erected in the 1920s dur­ing the Jim Crow era. Af­ter the Au­gust vi­o­lence, the coun­cil voted to sell both stat­ues, but they re­main in place for now un­der a court in­junc­tion. Con­fed­er­ate her­itage sup­port­ers sued the city, say­ing that a Vir­ginia law pro­hibits re­moval of the stat­ues.

“A lot of peo­ple have worked hard for Aug. 12 not to feel like ev­ery day of our lives,” said Seth Wis­pel­wey, a lo­cal minister who helped form Con­gre­gate Char­lottesville, a faith-based group formed in ad­vance of a Ku Klux Klan rally and the Unite the Right rally here last sum­mer. “This trial acutely and minutely re­lived that week­end, so that has been very dif­fi­cult for many folks.”

“This is not the face of some­one who is scared. This is the face of anger.” NINA-ALICE ANTONY PROS­E­CUT­ING AT­TOR­NEY

RYAN KELLY FILE PHOTO

A jury ruled Fri­day that James Fields Jr., 21, acted with pre­med­i­ta­tion when he roared into a crowd of coun­ter­protesters in Char­lottesville on Aug. 17, 2017, killing one woman and in­jur­ing 35 oth­ers.

Heather Heyer, 32, was killed in the at­tack by Fields.

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