The Justice Department charged James Alex Fields Jr., the driver accused of killing a counterprotester at last year’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, with multiple hate crimes Wednesday.
“At the Department of Justice, we remain resolute that hateful ideologies will not have the last word and that their adherents will not get away with violent crimes against those they target,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “Last summer’s violence in Charlottesville cut short a promising young life and shocked the nation. Today’s indictment should send a clear message to every would-be criminal in America that we aggressively prosecute violent crimes of hate that threaten the core principles of our nation.”
One of the counts filed in federal court in Charlottesville carries the possibility of the death penalty, although under Justice Department guidelines it will take months for prosecutors to decide whether they would seek execution if Fields, 21, is convicted.
Fields, who has been described by those who know him as a Nazi sympathizer, drove to Charlottesville from Ohio last summer as members of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi organizations and far-right white nationalist groups converged on the city. The groups participated in an Aug. 11 torchlight march through the University of Virginia campus and a “Unite the Right” rally the following day.
Both events were marked by racist and homophobic slurs and chants such as “Jews will not replace us” and “Our blood, our soil!” And both events rapidly descended into violence as marchers and counterprotesters clashed on the streets of the typically placid college town.
White supremacist leaders Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler, both University of Virginia graduates, organized the weekend events to protest the decision by Charlottesville to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a downtown park and rename the park Emancipation Park and, they said, to protect white heritage and white civil rights.
But the marchers at the Saturday rally, many armed with guns, clubs and bats, met fierce opposition from community members and anti-fascist protesters. Clashes soon erupted at the park and across the city. Law enforcement did not act immediately to break up altercations and stood by while groups battled in front of them. By 11:30 that morning, police declared the rally an unlawful assembly and it was not allowed to go on.
As the marchers and counterprotesters dispersed, there were isolated incidents of violence. But most groups separated, and it seemed that further damage had been averted.
Less than two hours later, though, as counterprotesters carrying signs paraded through downtown streets, Fields approached in his 2010 Dodge Challenger. According to the indictment, Fields observed the crowd and then, “with no vehicle behind him, Fields slowly reversed his vehicle to the top of the hill near the intersection of Fourth and Market streets. Fields then rapidly accelerated, ran through a stop sign and across a raised pedestrian mall, and drove directly into the crowd, striking numerous individuals, killing Heyer and injuring many others.”
Heyer did not go to the event looking for a fight, said Adam S. Lee, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Richmond office. “She was looking to lend her voice to her cause. Peaceful protest without intimidation, without the threat of violence is every American’s birthright,” Lee said at a news conference announcing the indictment
Fields had been photographed during the rally carrying a shield with the insignia of Vanguard America, a white supremacist group that had a large presence at the event. The group later denied that Fields was a member. At the time of his arrest in Charlottesville, he was employed as a security guard.
Fields once told his former high school teacher, Derek Weimer, that the Army had turned him down because of his psychiatric history. Classmates and former teachers were aware of his infatuation with Hitler. Weimer told The Washington Post that he knew Fields held racist and anti-Semitic beliefs and that he praised Nazi ideology.
On the day of the rally, according to the indictment, “Multiple groups and individuals, including Fields, engaged in chants promoting or expressing white supremacist and other racist and anti-Semitic views.”
The impact of the weekend’s events was magnified when President Trump asserted that both the white supremacists and those who protested against them deserved blame.
Dozens of the white supremacists taking part in the rally wore red Make America Great Again hats and were vocal in their support of Trump. At an afternoon news conference on the day of the riots, Trump condemned “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides.”
David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader and a Trump supporter who was in Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally, replied to the president, writing, “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.”
Later that week, Trump further angered critics when he said that there were “some very fine people” among those who took part in the torchlight procession through the U-Va. campus and the rally.
In addition to the federal charges, Fields is being prosecuted in the city of Charlottesville on numerous state charges, including first-degree murder. That trial is expected to begin Nov. 26 in Charlottesville Circuit Court and is scheduled to last three weeks.
In the state case, Fields also is charged with aggravated malicious wounding counts and could face up to four life sentences plus 110 years in prison.
For the first-degree murder charge, Fields is being represented by Denise Lunsford, a former prosecutor. She declined to comment on the new indictments.
Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, attended a news conference announcing the charges in Charlottesville. She told reporters she hadn’t yet read the full indictment and she isn’t sure whether she would support the death penalty for Fields. “I’m going to leave that to the process to decide,” she said. “It’s not my place to decide that.”
The decision to charge Fields with hate crimes comes as Charlottesville and other communities are preparing for the anniversary of the deadly riot. Kessler is appealing a decision by the city of Charlottesville to refuse his request to hold an event there on the weekend of Aug. 11-12. He has also received approval from the National Park Service to hold a “white civil rights” rally in Washington across the street from the White House that weekend. In his application for a permit, Kessler said he expects 400 people to attend that event.
Thomas Cullen, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, said at the news conference Wednesday in Charlottesville that the government is continuing to investigate other aspects of Aug. 12 and that the investigation is a priority in his office and the Civil Rights division.
Ian Shapira contributed to this report.