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 quickly 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 President Donald Trump, who later that week would say that 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.
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For both prosecutors and Fields’ defense 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 defense 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 500 miles 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.”
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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 Muñiz, 50, was on Fourth Street when Fields drove into the crowd. She escaped physical injury but still is traumatized by witnessing the violent act and seeing so many people she was celebrating with one moment suffer horrific injuries the next. Muñiz 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 hate-filled 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 August 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.”
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Though Fields’ trial has been the most extensively covered, there are more trials and lawsuits to come, including one against Jason Kessler, a city resident and one of the rally’s organizers. And the fate of the two Confederate statues — the original spark for the violence of 2017 — is scheduled to be decided in a court here in January.
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The Washington Post’s Paul Duggan contributed to this report.