Man guilty of first-de­gree mur­der in death of pro­tester

He still faces fed­eral charges that carry death penalty

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan M. Katz and Farah Stock­man

CHAR­LOTTESVILLE, Va. — Six­teen months after swastika-tot­ing white su­prem­a­cists swarmed the streets of Char­lottesville, one of the demon­stra­tors was con­victed of first-de­gree mur­der Fri­day by a jury that found he in­ten­tion­ally drove his car into a crowd of coun­ter­protesters, killing one woman and in­jur­ing nearly 40 oth­ers.

James Fields Jr., 21, faces up to life in prison for the death of Heather Heyer, 32, in a case that has stirred soul-search­ing in a city that prides it­self on be­ing a lib­eral bas­tion. Fields, who trav­eled from Ohio to at­tend the Unite the Right rally, was also con­victed of eight other

charges, in­clud­ing ag­gra­vated ma­li­cious wound­ing and leav­ing the scene of a fa­tal ac­ci­dent.

Fri­day’s ver­dict was cheered by those fight­ing racial and re­li­gious ha­tred and pro­vided some clo­sure in a case that cast a na­tional spot­light on Char­lottesville, the scene cho­sen by racists and an­ti­Semites to rally for their cause, near a Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ment that some city lead­ers were try­ing to re­move.

“This ver­dict sends a strong mes­sage to oth­ers that hate has no place in our so­ci­ety,” said Jonathan Green­blatt, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Anti-Defama­tion League.

The at­tack, in which Fields sped down a nar­row street teem­ing with coun­ter­protesters, was a deadly coda to a week­end of white na­tion­al­ist events in Char­lottesville in Au­gust 2017, which in­cluded a pre­rally march with torches to the statue of Thomas Jef­fer­son on the cam­pus of the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia. The rally was marked by vi­o­lent clashes be­tween coun­ter­protesters and white na­tion­al­ists, some of whom were con­victed ear­lier this year.

Many of Fields’ vic­tims had con­fronted ral­liers ear­lier that day and were on their way home, cel­e­brat­ing the fact that au­thor­i­ties had shut down the event, when they were struck by his Dodge Chal­lenger.

Fields showed no emo­tion and sat sub­dued be­tween his lawyers as a clerk read the unan­i­mous ver­dicts and polled the jury of seven women and five men, in­clud­ing one African-Amer­i­can man. At one point, Fields glanced back to­ward his mother, who, dressed in black and sit­ting in a wheel­chair, sobbed qui­etly into a tis­sue. Judge Richard Moore of Char­lottesville Cir­cuit Court af­firmed the ver­dicts, but made no com­ment.

His vic­tims sobbed, hugged, and softly cheered in­side the crowded court­room. Sev­eral joined in a group hug around Star Peter­son, a sin­gle mother whose legs and back were bro­ken in the crash. Con­stance Paige Young, who was also in­jured, said the guilty ver­dicts and a com­ing fed­eral hate crime trial would “set a prece­dent that this white na­tion­al­ist vi­o­lence that has been present since this na­tion’s in­cep­tion is no longer tol­er­a­ble.”

The nine-day trial fea­tured days of emo­tional tes­ti­mony from vic­tims who were se­ri­ously in­jured in the crash, in­clud­ing Peter­son and Mar­cus Martin, who pushed his girl­friend out of the way, bear­ing the brunt of the im­pact him­self. He later mar­ried her. Many of the vic­tims re­turned to the court­room day after day to lis­ten to other wit­nesses, and jurors saw them hug­ging and com­fort­ing one an­other.

Dur­ing much of the tes­ti­mony, Fields be­trayed no emo­tion and ap­peared ap­a­thetic as his vic­tims de­scribed their pain and last­ing in­juries.

But Court­ney Com­man­der, whose knee was grazed by the car, said that in the first days of tes­ti­mony, Fields mouthed the words, “I’m sorry” at her, prompt­ing her and two other vic­tims to leave the court­room.

“I don’t even know how to feel about it,” she said be­fore the ver­dict came down. “Even if he does feel sorry, it’s not go­ing to bring back my friend.”

Dur­ing the trial, pros­e­cu­tors in­tro­duced ev­i­dence that Fields in­tended to com­mit harm when he drove from Ohio to at­tend the rally. In a text mes­sage ex­change with his mother, she told him to be care­ful. “We’re not the one[s] who need to be care­ful,” he replied in a mes­sage that also in­cluded a photo of Adolf Hitler.

Pros­e­cu­tors also showed the jury a car­toon that Fields had shared months ear­lier on In­sta­gram of a car ram­ming into a crowd, with the words, “You have the right to protest but I’m late for work.” Other ev­i­dence in­cluded record­ings of con­ver­sa­tions Fields had with his mother after his ar­rest, in which he de­scribed the coun­ter­protesters at the rally as a “vi­o­lent gang of ter­ror­ists,” and de­rided Heyer’s mother, Su­san Bro, as an “anti-white lib­eral” who should be viewed as an en­emy.

Fields’ de­fense lawyers did not dis­pute that he drove his car into the crowd, but claimed that he “acted out of fear” rather than mal­ice, high­light­ing the scuf­fles and clashes that took place ear­lier that day be­tween Unite the Right par­tic­i­pants and an­tiracism ac­tivists.

“There’s no ev­i­dence he came pre­pared to do any harm,” said John Hill, a de­fense lawyer, dur­ing the trial. The de­fense called Dwayne Dixon, an an­tiracism ac­tivist, to tes­tify, and he ac­knowl­edged shout­ing at a gray car while he had an AR-15 ri­fle slung over his shoul­der.

But video footage from that day showed Fields’ car idling and then back­ing up be­fore it plowed ahead into the crowd.

Jurors were vis­i­bly moved by tes­ti­mony of vic­tims de­scrib­ing the crash. Fields drove away — a sneaker still stuck in the grill of the car — and was stopped on a road head­ing out of town. In a con­ver­sa­tion with a po­lice of­fi­cer, his voice flat and calm, he said, “I didn’t want to hurt peo­ple, but I thought they were at­tack­ing me.” When he was told that a per­son died and many were in­jured, he gasped and sobbed.

A prose­cu­tor, Nina-Alice Antony, ar­gued that Fields clearly had “spe­cific in­tent to kill a hu­man be­ing,” even if he had not sin­gled out any par­tic­u­lar per­son in the crowd.

The rally, which pur­ported to be a de­fense of the stat­ues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jack­son, which some in the city were try­ing to re­move, tore at the fab­ric of Char­lottesville even be­fore it was held, as anti-racism ac­tivists begged city of­fi­cials not to al­low it, warn­ing that there would be vi­o­lence.

City lead­ers even­tu­ally tried to stop the rally from be­ing held, but a judge al­lowed it to move for­ward, cit­ing free speech rights.

The vi­o­lence that broke out, in par­tic­u­lar the deadly crash, gave elected of­fi­cials new am­mu­ni­tion in their at­tempts to get judges to cur­tail white na­tion­al­ist events.

Sup­port grew for the stat­ues’ re­moval, and many lo­cal Re­pub­li­can of­fi­cials dis­tanced them­selves from peo­ple as­so­ci­ated with the rally. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump was widely crit­i­cized for com­ments that sug­gested that “very fine peo­ple on both sides” had been to blame for the vi­o­lence.

Nearly ev­ery of­fi­cial who held power at the time has since re­signed or re­tired.

In­stead of unit­ing the right, the rally’s pur­ported goal, it em­pow­ered a left­ist po­lit­i­cal coali­tion that vows to con­front gen­er­a­tions of racial and eco­nomic in­jus­tice. But de­spite the dras­tic over­haul of the city’s lead­er­ship, whole­sale change has been slow to take hold.

The bronze Con­fed­er­ate gen­er­als that ig­nited the rally still sit on horse­back in pub­lic parks. Ac­tivists still de­mand their re­moval. A judge still for­bids it. Their fate may be de­cided next month.

A sen­tenc­ing hear­ing with the same jury is sched­uled to be­gin Mon­day, pend­ing pos­si­ble de­lays for a snow­storm pre­dicted for the week­end. Fields also faces the death penalty in a sec­ond trial on fed­eral hate crimes charges next year. A guilty ver­dict in that case, his vic­tims said, would be crit­i­cal to send­ing a mes­sage that vi­o­lent white supremacy would not be tol­er­ated.

STEVE HEL­BER AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Su­san Bro, cen­ter, mother of Heather Heyer, is es­corted down the steps of the court­house after a guilty ver­dict was reached in the trial of James Alex Fields Jr., who killed Heyer dur­ing the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Char­lottesville, Va.

James Fields Jr.

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