CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A man who has voiced racist and pro-Nazi views faces the possibility of life in prison in the death of a woman during clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August. Prosecutors on Thursday increased the top charge against him, and a judge said the case could proceed.
Charlottesville General District Court Judge Robert Downer Jr. certified a first-degree murder charge and an array of lesser felony charges against James Alex Fields, who is accused of driving his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring 35 others.
Heyer’s parents and many of the surviving victims sat in the courtroom, as police Det. Steven Young described finding “blood and flesh on the front of the vehicle” when he approached Fields’ 2010 Dodge Challenger, about a mile from the episode.
The prosecution played two graphic videos of the attack that had never before been seen in public; people in the gallery watched, transfixed, and some victims — two were on crutches — bowed their heads and dabbed their eyes. Several of the victims wore purple shirts with a picture of Heyer and her last Facebook post, which has become a national catchphrase: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Seeing the video images, Marcus Martin, the young man in a widely shared photo of him being flipped into the air by the speeding car, jumped up from his seat, shouted “Take me out,” and left with two companions.
One video, taken from a police helicopter, showed a car plowing into the pedestrians, drawing a string of profanities from the officers in the aircraft.
“Did you see that?” one asks. “I can’t believe he did that.”
The other video, taken from a restaurant near the scene of the attack, the Red Pump Kitchen, showed a string of vehicles heading south on 4th Street, and then the Challenger zooming past.
“That really shook me up; my heart really dropped,” said Rosia Parker, who sat through the proceedings and said she was standing a few feet from Heyer at the time of the impact.
The violence in Charlottesville drew international attention to racial tensions in the United States, all the more so after President Donald Trump at first declined to condemn the white supremacists, and insisted that both sides were to blame.
Fields, 20, who has expressed extreme views, drove from his home in Ohio to the “Unite the Right” rally, which was ostensibly organized to protest the removal of statues of Confederate generals from public parks, and drew people from several white nationalist factions.
Photos taken the morning of Heyer’s death show Fields with members of one such group — which denied any connection to him — carrying a shield with one of its emblems.
Young, the sole witness at the hearing, said under questioning by Fields’ lawyer, Denise Lunsford, that investigators had found no evidence that Fields was affiliated with any of the groups assembled that day.
The detective said that while there were holes in the Challenger’s back window, made by outraged people after the impact, there was no evidence of anything hitting the car before it struck the crowd. That testimony was apparently intended to undercut any argument that Fields had been under attack.
Fields, wearing prison stripes and a beard, sat through the hearing showing no reaction to the videos or the testimony.
The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office had initially filed second-degree murder, punishable by five to 40 years in prison, as the most serious charge against Fields. But Thursday, the office sought to raise that to first-degree murder, with a penalty of 20 years to life, and the judge agreed.
The certification of the charges by Downer means that prosecutors will take the case to a grand jury Monday to seek an indictment.
Earlier in the day, the judge certified felony charges of malicious wounding against Jacob Goodwin and Alex Ramos, who were part of a group accused of beating DeAndre Harris, a black man, in a parking garage during the same outbreak of violence.
The man who organized the rally, Jason Kessler, denounced what he called a “kangaroo court” for the charges against Ramos and Goodwin, and called Charlottesville a communist city.
Hawes Spencer reported from Charlottesville, Virginia, and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York.