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Neo-Nazi sympathizer pleads guilty to federal hate crimes for plowing car into protesters at Charlottesville rally

On Aug. 12, 2017, James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into protesters demonstrating against the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.
On Aug. 12, 2017, James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into protesters demonstrating against the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. (Ryan M. Kelly/Daily Progress/AP)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — An avowed neo-Nazi who killed one woman and injured 35 other people when he plowed his car into a group of counterprotesters at an infamous white-supremacist rally here pleaded guilty to hate crimes in federal court Wednesday.

James Alex Fields Jr., 21, of Ohio admitted guilt to 29 of 30 counts in a federal indictment as part of a deal with prosecutors, who agreed they would not seek the death penalty in a case that has come to symbolize the violent resurgence of white supremacism in the United States. Fields is set to be sentenced July 3.

Late last year, Fields was ­convicted in state court of first-degree murder and other charges for killing Heather D. Heyer, 32, and injuring dozens at the chaotic Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12, 2017. The jury in that case recommended a life sentence, and a state judge is scheduled to formally impose it in mid-July.

A jury sentenced James Alex Fields Jr., who rammed his car into a group of counterprotesters at a white-supremacist rally, to life in prison on Dec. 11, 2018. (Video: Reuters)

Admitting guilt to hate crimes marks a dramatic shift for Fields, whose attorneys argued during his trial in state court that he sped toward the crowd out of fear for his safety and confusion. They said he immediately regretted his actions.

On Wednesday, Fields, who has grown a bushy beard in the months since his state trial, entered a federal courtroom here in a gray-and-white-striped prisoner’s jumpsuit and handcuffs. He spoke only to answer a judge’s questions and displayed no emotion during the hour-long hearing.

Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, said after the hearing she was satisfied with the result.

“There’s no point in killing him. It would not bring back Heather,” Bro said.

“It’s a relief to think we don’t have to go through another trial. It was exhausting the first time. I can get on with my life, and the other victims can, too.”

Thomas T. Cullen, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, said he was gratified that Fields finally admitted he was motivated by hate, calling the crime “an indelible mark on the city of Charlottesville, our state and our country.”

Fields pleaded guilty to one count of a hate crime that resulted in the death of Heyer and 28 counts of hate crimes that caused injuries and involved attempts to kill other people in the crowd. Each of the 29 counts carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Attorney General William P. Barr approved the deal.

Fields sentenced to life in prison in fatal Charlottesville car attack

The violence in 2017 and President Trump’s assertion afterward that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the Charlottesville rally sparked intense criticism and a fresh focus on the renewed forces of ethno-nationalism.

The events began on Aug. 11 when far-right groups mounted a torchlight march through the University of Virginia campus shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans, including, “Jews will not replace us!”

Fields was already on his way to Charlottesville, arriving the next day for a white-supremacist rally that was nominally held to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The event, involving hundreds of marchers, generated national media attention after rallygoers carrying Nazi flags and shouting racial epithets clashed violently with throngs of counterprotesters. Police eventually dispersed the groups.

A short time later, Fields was seen driving his gray Dodge Challenger up to a group of counterprotesters on a narrow street. He slowly backed up and then accelerated down a hill directly into the group.

Harrowing video, which was played at Fields’s state trial, shows protesters tumbling and screaming as the car slams into them. Fields then reversed at a high speed, hitting and dragging others. Someone repeatedly yelled: “Oh, God! Oh, God!”

Heyer was killed, while others were seriously wounded. One woman who limped to the witness stand at Fields’s state trial testified she had five surgeries and was about to undergo a sixth. Another described a broken pelvis and a third how he pushed his fiancee out of the way before he was hit by the Dodge.

At the state trial, a mental-health expert detailed Fields’s psychiatric disorders dating to early childhood.

He did not deny running into the crowd, but his attorneys argued that he acted to protect himself. Prosecutors forcefully countered that argument, and the jury at the six-day trial rejected the defense.

Jurors were shown a deleted Instagram post by Fields shared three months before that crash that featured a car running into a group of people. A caption read: “You Have the Right to Protest, But I’m Late for Work.”

A state prosecutor also showed a blown-up image of Fields in his car to counter the idea that he was frightened when he acted.

“This is not the face of someone who is scared,” a state prosecutor said at the time. “This is the face of anger, of hatred. It’s the face of malice.”

As part of the plea agreement in federal court, prosecutors said Fields admitted that before the rally, he had used social media to “express and promote white supremacist views” including admiration for the racial-purity doctrine of Adolf Hitler. They said he used those accounts to “espouse violence against African Americans, Jewish people, and members of other racial, ethnic and religious groups he perceived to be non-white.”

From wary observer to justice warrior: How Heather Heyer’s death gave her mom a voice

After Wednesday’s federal court hearing, Bro was asked whether Heyer’s killing had raised the community’s consciousness about racial disparities.

“Sadly, it took a white girl dying before anyone paid attention to civil rights around here,” she told reporters. “I wish we had woken up sooner.”

But Bro did describe one moment of healing. When asked whether she had ever come in contact with Fields’s mother, Bro said she had seen her just once, at the state trial.

“She looked at me, and I looked at her,” Bro said. “I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ She said, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”

An earlier version of this story misidentified Fields’s car as a Dodge Charger. It was a Dodge Challenger.

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