Mur­der ver­dict against driver at na­tion­al­ists rally

San Francisco Chronicle - - NATION - By Denise Lavoie Denise Lavoie is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

CHAR­LOTTESVILLE, Va. — A man who drove his car into a crowd of coun­ter­protesters at a white na­tion­al­ist rally in Vir­ginia was con­victed Fri­day of first-de­gree mur­der for killing a woman in an at­tack that in­flamed long-sim­mer­ing racial and po­lit­i­cal ten­sions across the coun­try.

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

Fields, 21, drove to Vir­ginia from his home in Maumee, Ohio, to sup­port the white na­tion­al­ists. As a group of coun­ter­protesters marched through Char­lottesville, 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.

The far-right rally 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 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.

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

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

Michael Dwyer / As­so­ci­ated Press

A man holds a photo of Heather Heyer at a rally Aug. 19, 2017, in Bos­ton. Heyer was killed when a car driven by James Alex Fields Jr., hit pro­test­ers days ear­lier in Char­lottesville, Va.

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