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Avowed neo-Nazi sentenced to life in prison in fatal Virginia car attack

Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, hugged her husband Kent outside Charlottesville Circuit Court Tuesday. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)
Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, hugged her husband Kent outside Charlottesville Circuit Court Tuesday. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)(Steve Helber)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — James Fields Jr., the avowed neo-Nazi who rammed his car into a group of counterprotesters at a white supremacists rally, was sentenced to life in prison by a jury Tuesday after a trial that offered an unsparing view of the physical and emotional ruin he caused in this city with a burst of vehicular rage 16 months ago.

As he had throughout his two-week trial, Fields, 21, sat impassively at the defendant’s table, clad in a powder blue sweater, as the jury delivered its punishment at 12:20 p.m., after about four hours of deliberations that began Monday: life for first-degree murder; 70 years for each of five counts of aggravated malicious wounding; 20 years for each of three counts of malicious wounding; and nine years for leaving the scene of a fatal crash.

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His overall sentence: life plus 419 years and $489,000 in fines.

The same jury of seven women and five men convicted Fields of those 10 offenses Friday in Charlottesville Circuit Court. In Virginia, trial juries determine what penalties should be meted out within sentencing ranges dictated by law.

Judge Richard Moore, who said he will formally sentence Fields on March 29, can impose a lesser punishment than the jurors called for but is not allowed to increase the sentences.

Fields, whose psychiatric disorders dating to early childhood were detailed in court by a mental health specialist, did not deny that he intentionally accelerated his Dodge Challenger into a group of counterprotesters at the Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12, 2017. His lawyers contended that he was afraid for his safety and acted to protect himself. But jurors, in issuing 10 guilty verdicts last week, rejected that argument.

One of the antiracism demonstrators, Heather Heyer, 32, who worked for a local law firm, was killed in the crash and 35 others were hurt, many grievously.

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Fields also faces a separate, federal trial for an array of alleged hate crimes related to the incident, including one offense that carries a possible death sentence. No trial date has been set in that case, and the Justice Department has not revealed whether it will seek capital punishment.

In the meantime, Fields will wait in a state penitentiary, where an inmate who has served a certain amount of a sentence can petition for geriatric release after age 60. Otherwise, Virginia does not allow parole for felonies committed after the mid-1990s.

Several of the injured survivors, testifying at Fields’s trial and sentencing hearing here, described lasting bodily wounds, psychological anguish, and financial distress.

Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, told the jury Monday that after her daughter’s death, she had trouble finding a recent photo of her and Heyer. She said she realized that the two seldom posed for pictures together, thinking they did not need mementos, ‘‘because we just took it for granted that we’d be around for each other for years to come.’’

In December 2017, four months after the deadly chaos at a downtown Charlottesville street corner, Bro said, she carried her artificial Christmas tree to a table in her home but could not muster the will to put it up. ‘‘This year, the trial has reopened the wounds,’’ she testified, ‘‘and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get the tree out of the shed, frankly.’’

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Hundreds of white supremacists descended on the city for the rally, nominally in support of Charlottesville’s statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, which officials plan to take down if they win a pending lawsuit over the issue.