Jury finds Fields guilty of first-de­gree mur­der

Panel re­jects claim that he acted in self-de­fense at Char­lottesville rally

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - BY DENISE LAVOIE

CHAR­LOTTESVILLE — The Ohio man who drove his car into coun­ter­protesters at the white na­tion­al­ist Unite the Right rally in Char­lottesville last sum­mer 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 21-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. acted in self-de­fense. Ju­rors also con­victed Fields of eight other charges, in­clud­ing ag­gra­vated ma­li­cious wound­ing and hit-and-run.

Fields drove to Vir­ginia from his home in Maumee, Ohio, to sup­port the white na­tion­al­ists on

Aug. 12, 2017. 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 see­ing 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 on the eve of 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.”

“We don’t stand for this type of hate. We just don’t,” she said.

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.”

“There does not seem to be any rea­son­able ev­i­dence put for­ward that he en­gaged in mur­der­ous in­tent,” Spencer said.

Spencer pop­u­lar­ized the term “alt-right” to de­scribe a fringe move­ment loosely mix­ing white na­tion­al­ism, anti-Semitism and other far-right ex­trem­ist views. He said he doesn’t feel any per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity for the vi­o­lence that erupted in Char­lottesville.

“Ab­so­lutely not,” he said. “As a cit­i­zen, I have a right to protest. I have a right to speak. That is what I came to Char­lottesville to do.”

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.

Ac­cord­ing to one of his for­mer teach­ers, 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 ones who need to be care­ful.”

Dur­ing one of two recorded phone calls 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, Fields re­ferred to the mother of the woman who was killed as a “com­mu­nist” and “one of those an­ti­white su­prem­a­cists.”

Prose­cu­tors also showed ju­rors a meme 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. He posted the meme pub­licly to his In­sta­gram page and sent a sim­i­lar im­age as a pri­vate mes­sage to a friend.

But Fields’ 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 Fields be­ing in­ter­ro­gated after the crash showed him sob­bing and hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing after he was told that a woman had died and oth­ers were se­ri­ously in­jured.

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

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

HeatherHeyer was killed last year when James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of peo­ple protest­ing the Unite the Right rally in Char­lottesville.

Fields

AN­DREW SHURTLEFF/THE DAILY PROGRESS

De­mon­stra­tors re­acted in Char­lottesville after James Alex Fields Jr. was found guilty of first-de­gree mur­der in the car at­tack that killed Heather Heyer.

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