CHARLOTTESVILLE — Two weeks after being sentenced to life in prison by a federal judge, avowed neo-Nazi James A. Fields Jr. received a similar sentence Monday in a Virginia court for ramming his car into a group of counterprotesters during a white-
supremacist rally here, killing a woman and injuring 35 other people.
In ordering terms of life plus 419 years in state prison, Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard E. Moore imposed the punishment recommended in December by a jury that convicted Fields of first-degree murder and nine other charges.
“This event shook our community,” prosecutor Nina-Alice Antony told Moore in asking him to follow the jury’s sentencing recommendation. “I would even be so bold as to say it shook our nation.”
For Fields, 22, an Ohio resident with a long history of espousing racist and anti-Semitic views, Monday’s appearance in a packed courtroom was possibly his last face-to-face reckoning with the judicial system on charges related to the infamous “Unite the Right” rally. The sentencing came nearly two years after he accelerated his speeding Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counterprotesters during the demonstration.
Heather D. Heyer, 32, a local law firm employee, was killed in the vehicular attack, and numerous survivors suffered life-
altering injuries, including crushed limbs and organ damage. Some have testified that they will probably never be fully healthy again.
“I have never been involved in a case where so many people were severely injured by one person,” Moore said as Fields, clad in a gray- and white-striped jail smock, sat impassively at the defendant’s table. Seven people who were injured in the attack gave victim impact statements, asking the judge to impose the maximum sentence.
In U.S. District Court in Charlottesville, Fields pleaded guilty to 29 federal hate crimes this year and was sentenced June 28 to life in prison. In Moore’s state courtroom, in addition to being found guilty of first-degree murder Dec. 7 after a two-week trial, Fields was convicted of five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of leaving the scene of a fatal crash.
At the Aug. 12, 2017, rally, hundreds of white supremacists chanting hateful slogans engaged in street clashes with counterprotesters for hours. Photos and video of the mayhem — including images of broken bodies propelled in the air by Fields’s car — were viewed worldwide, riveting public attention on emboldened ethnic fascism in the United States in the early months of the Trump administration.
“This isn’t just a Charlottesville issue,” one of Fields’s victims, William Burke, told reporters Monday.
At his federal sentencing, Fields apologized for “the hurt and loss I have caused.” However, when Moore offered him a chance to speak publicly Monday, he chose to remain silent. And as the victims addressed the court, he looked away.
A widely publicized photo taken the day of the rally shows Fields posing with a gaggle of self-proclaimed fascists, members of a group called Vanguard America. He and the others were clad in Vanguard’s de rigueur baggy khakis and white polo shirts, and each held a shield bearing a logo of crossed bundles of sticks, an ancient Roman symbol of strength.
After the car attack, Vanguard members denied any association with Fields, describing him as a stranger and hanger-on who attached himself to the group in Charlottesville.
“This is going to be with all of us for the rest of our lives,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Joseph D. Platania said outside the courthouse after Fields had been led away.
“I’m just relieved,” said Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro.
Evidence showed that Fields, who drove alone to the rally from his apartment in Maumee, Ohio, had long been fascinated by Nazi Germany, espousing admiration for the militarism and racial purity doctrine of the Third Reich.
In the federal case, Fields pleaded guilty March 27 to the 29 hate crimes as part of a deal in which the U.S. attorney’s office in Charlottesville agreed to drop an additional charge that carried a possible death sentence.
In a sentencing memo, a federal prosecutor described a trip to Germany that Fields took with high school classmates after their graduation. “When the group visited the Dachau concentration camp, the defendant said, ‘This is where the magic happened,’ and then skipped happily down the train tracks that transported Jewish prisoners to the camp,” the prosecutor wrote, quoting one of the classmates.
Fields, whose psychiatric disorders dating to early childhood were detailed in court during his state trial, did not deny that he intentionally plowed his car into a group of counterprotesters gathered at a street corner. His lawyers contended that he was afraid for his safety and acted to protect himself, but jurors rejected that defense.
On Monday, Moore called a video of the crash “one of the most chilling and disturbing . . . I have ever seen in my life” and echoed the jury’s rejection of the self-defense argument. “He was not trapped. No one was around his vehicle.”
On Dec. 11, the jury of seven women and five men in the state trial recommended sentences of life for first-degree murder, 70 years for each of the five aggravated malicious-wounding charges, 20 years for each of the three malicious-wounding charges and nine years for leaving the scene of a fatal crash. The panel tacked on $480,000 in fines.
The jurors were instructed that the sentences would be “presumed to be consecutive” unless they recommended that the terms be served simultaneously. They made no such recommendation, and the judge adhered to the jury’s decision.
In federal court last month, Fields was sentenced to 29 life terms, 27 of which were made concurrent with his state sentence. It means that for judicial bookkeeping purposes, his homicidal act of vehicular rage garnered him combined state and federal sentences of 28 simultaneous life terms, followed by 419 years, followed by two more life terms.
One of the victims, Wren Steel, said in court Monday, “I want to never be aware of him again.”