James A. Fields Jr., an avowed neo-Nazi who rammed his car into a group of counterprotesters at a 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, is scheduled to appear in federal court Wednesday for a change-of-plea hearing on hate-crime charges.
Fields was convicted in December in state court of first-degree murder for killing Heather Heyer when he ran his car through a throng of counterprotesters at the Unite the Right rally in 2017.
He was charged in June with two federal hate crimes in her death and more than two dozen other related charges. He entered a plea of not guilty at his arraignment in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville. One of the counts Fields faces in federal court carries the possibility of the death penalty.
When reached by phone Tuesday evening, one of Fields’s public defenders, Frederick Heblich Jr., declined to comment on the pending hearing, scheduled for 2:30 p.m. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Virginia also declined to comment.
Such hearings indicate a defendant may intend to plead guilty in the case, but no plea is final unless both sides agree and it is approved by a judge.
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.
Fields, who was 20 at the time of the protest, did not deny that he intentionally accelerated his Dodge Challenger into a group of counterprotesters. His attorneys contended at his state trial that he was feared for his safety and acted to protect himself.
Last year a jury in Charlottesville Circuit Court found Fields guilty of first-degree murder in Heyer’s death and of multiple counts in connection with injuries to other protesters.
The jury sentenced him to life in prison on the murder charge; 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.
Judge Richard E. Moore, who has scheduled formal sentencing for Fields for July 15, can impose a lesser punishment than the jurors called for but is not allowed to increase the sentences.
Paul Duggan contributed to this report.