JURY: IT WAS MUR­DER

Man who killed woman in Char­lottesville car at­tack last year could face death penalty if also con­victed of fed­eral hate crime charges

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - James Alex Fields Jr.

CHAR­LOTTESVILLE, Va. — A man who drove his car into coun­ter­protesters at a 2017 white na­tion­al­ist rally in Vir­ginia was con­victed Fri­day of first-de­gree mur­der, a ver­dict that lo­cal civil rights ac­tivists hope will help heal a com­mu­nity still scarred by the vi­o­lence and the racial ten­sions it in­flamed na­tion­wide.

A state jury re­jected de­fense ar­gu­ments that James Alex Fields Jr. acted in self-de­fense dur­ing a “Unite the Right” rally in Char­lottesville on Aug. 12, 2017.

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 that 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.

Af­ter the ver­dict was read in court, some of those who were in­jured em­braced Heyer’s mother, Su­san Bro. She left the court­house with­out com­ment­ing. Fields’ mother, Sa­man­tha Bloom, who is dis­abled, left the court­house in a wheel­chair with­out com­ment­ing.

A group of about a dozen lo­cal civil rights ac­tivists stood in front of the court­house af­ter the ver­dict with their right arms raised in the air.

“They will not re­place us! They will not re­place us!” they yelled, in a re­sponse to the chants heard dur­ing the 2017 rally, when some white na­tion­al­ists shouted: “You will not re­place us! and “Jews will not re­place us.”

Char­lottesville City Coun­cilor Wes Bel­lamy said he hopes the ver­dict “al­lows our com­mu­nity to take an­other step to­ward heal­ing and mov­ing for­ward.”

Char­lottesville civil rights ac­tivist Tane­sha Hud­son said she sees the guilty ver­dict as the city’s way of say­ing, “We will not tol­er­ate this in our city.”

White na­tion­al­ist Richard Spencer, who had been sched­uled to speak at the Unite the Right rally, de­scribed the ver­dict as a “mis­car­riage of jus­tice.”

“I am sadly not shocked, but I am ap­palled by this,” he told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “He was treated as a ter­ror­ist from the get-go.”

Spencer had ques­tioned whether Fields could get a fair trial since the case was “so emo­tional.”

The far-right rally in Au­gust 2017 had been or­ga­nized in part to protest the planned re­moval of a statue of Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hun­dreds of Ku Klux Klan mem­bers, neo-Nazis and other white na­tion­al­ists — em­bold­ened by the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump — streamed into the col­lege town for one of the largest gath­er­ings of white su­prem­a­cists in a decade. Some dressed in bat­tle gear.

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

The jury will re­con­vene Mon­day to rec­om­mend a sen­tence. Un­der Vir­ginia law, ju­rors can rec­om­mend from 20 years to life in prison on the first­de­gree mur­der charge.

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

RYAN M. KELLY/ THE DAILY PROGRESS VIA AP

Peo­ple fly into the air as a ve­hi­cle slams into a group of pro­test­ers demon­strat­ing against a white na­tion­al­ist rally on Aug. 12, 2017, in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia.

STEVE HEL­BER/AP

Su­san Bro (cen­ter), mother of Heather Heyer, whose pic­ture (in­set) is held by a pro­tester last year in Bos­ton, is es­corted Fri­day in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia, af­ter James Alex Fields Jr. was found guilty of Heyer’s mur­der.

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