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Fields convicted of first-degree murder in car-ramming trial

James Alex Fields Jr.
James Alex Fields Jr. (lbemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail via New York Times)

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.

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The deadly attack in the early afternoon of Aug. 12, 2017, followed 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 Trump, who later that week would say that there were ‘‘very fine people’’ on both sides of the demonstration.

Fields’s 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.

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Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, sat near the front of the crowded courtroom every day watching the proceedings overseen by Judge Richard Moore. Fields’s mother, Samantha Bloom, sat in her wheelchair on the other side, an island in a sea of her son’s victims and their supporters.

For both prosecutors and Fields’s 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, but 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.

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.

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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.

After the verdict was read and the judge ended proceedings, victims and their supporters hugged quietly, some crying softly. Bro embraced each of the prosecutors, followed by a line of well-wishers.

Later, activists gathered outside the courthouse to celebrate the verdict. They chanted ‘‘Whose streets? Our streets.’’

Fields, who also was convicted of failure to stop at the accident, is set to return to court Monday for a sentencing hearing before the same jury. Bro said she would not comment until that phase of the proceeding has ended.

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.

Though Fields’s 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.