CHARLOTTESVILLE — James A. Fields Jr., an avowed neo-Nazi who rammed his car into a group of counterprotesters at a white-supremacist 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 sentencing decisions 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.
The jurors were instructed that the sentences would be “presumed to be consecutive” unless they recommended that the terms be served simultaneously. The panel made no such recommendation. Fields’s overall sentence: life plus 419 years and $480,000 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 E. 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 expert, 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 about his safety and acted to protect himself. But jurors, in issuing 10 guilty verdicts last week, rejected that argument.
One of the anti-racism demonstrators, Heather Heyer, 32, who worked for a local law firm, was killed in the crash, and 35 others were hurt, many grievously.
“This trial and today’s outcome has been a long time coming for the victims and their family members,” said Joe Platania, Charlottesville’s chief prosecutor, speaking to reporters outside the courthouse. “We are unable to heal their physical injuries or bring Heather back. But we are hopeful they’ll be able to take some comfort and solace from these verdicts and sentences.”
Fields faces a separate federal trial for alleged hate crimes related to the incident, including one offense that carries a possible death sentence. No trial date has been set, and the Justice Department has not said whether it will seek capital punishment.
In the meantime, after Moore imposes Tuesday’s sentences, Fields will be transferred from the local jail to 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 victims, testifying at Fields’s trial and sentencing hearing here, described lasting physical wounds, psychological anguish and dire financial distress.
They spoke of shattered bones and debilitating nerve damage from which they might never fully recover; of nightmares and social isolation caused by post-traumatic stress disorder; and of crushing medical bills from surgeries that have depleted their insurance and could burden them far into the future.
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 street corner, Bro said, she carried her artificial Christmas tree to a table in her home but could not muster the will to set 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.”
In front of the courthouse Tuesday, after the jury had been dismissed, Bro sighed as she faced a bevy of news cameras. “So many emotions, so many reactions, it’s really still hard to process,” she said, adding: “So we move forward. We still have social justice work to do. . . . The things Heather died for, I’m not seeing a lot of progress in the last year and a half.”
Hundreds of white supremacists descended on the city for the rally, nominally in support of Charlottesville’s statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, after the city council had voted to take it down. A lawsuit over the issue is pending, and the statue remains in place.
Chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans as they marched in the streets, the white supremacists violently clashed with counterprotesters for hours. Photos and video of the mayhem — including images of broken bodies propelled in the air by Fields’s speeding Dodge — were viewed worldwide, galvanizing public attention on ethno-fascists who became emboldened in the early months of the Trump administration.
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, acquaintances have said in interviews. But his ideology did not come up in testimony at the trial, which focused mainly on his actions that August afternoon and the devastating consequences for his victims.
Daniel Murrie, a University of Virginia psychologist who reviewed thousands of pages of Fields’s school and mental-health records, testified that bipolar disorder was diagnosed when Fields was 6 and that, as an adolescent, he was found to have schizoid personality disorder. Murrie said Fields was housed in psychiatric facilities for three stretches before his 15th birthday.
He told the jury that Fields, who did not take the witness stand, has been prone to angry, sometimes violent outbursts since before he could walk and was “expelled from preschool” because of his volatile behavior. A loner and social misfit, Fields washed out of Army basic training after graduating from high school, then worked at low-end jobs, playing video games for dozens of hours a week, Murrie said.
But Murrie, whose court-ordered evaluation of Fields included about 14 hours of jailhouse interviews, testified that Fields did not meet Virginia’s legal definition for not guilty by reason of insanity. And Fields did not mount such a defense.
To be acquitted on the basis of insanity, a defendant must show that he did not understand the difference between right and wrong at the time of the offense or was mentally unable to control his actions.
The bigotry and raw nationalism exhibited by the “Unite the Right” marchers made “Charlottesville” a catch word for increasing displays of racial and ethnic animosity in the United States.
Platania, the prosecutor, said the city’s justice system had contributed to restoring peace and understanding.
“We all have a role to play,” he said after Fields was led away to a cell. “Hopefully, the outcome achieved today is Charlottesville’s small part in rejecting and holding accountable those whose violent acts against others are fueled by hatred.”
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