White nationalist pleads guilty to federal hate crimes, avoiding death penalty in Charlottesville case

Free Press wire reports | 3/29/2019, 6 a.m.
An Ohio man pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal hate crime charges in a deadly car attack at a 2017 white ...

James Fields Jr.

James Fields Jr.

Heather Heyer

Heather Heyer

An Ohio man pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal hate crime charges in a deadly car attack at a 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, a case that stirred racial tensions across the country.

Under a plea agreement, James Alex Fields Jr., 21, of Maumee, Ohio, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville to 29 of 30 charges stemming from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. He did not plead guilty to one count that carried a potential death penalty. His plea agreement states the death penalty was taken off the table.

Mr. Fields appeared stoic, with hands folded in front of him for much of the hearing. He did not speak, except to repeatedly respond “Yes, sir,” when U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski asked him if he was pleading guilty knowingly and voluntarily.

Under the plea agreement, Mr. Fields admitted that he intentionally drove his car into the crowd because of the counterprotesters’ race, color, religion or national origin.

Judge Urbanski scheduled sentencing for July 3. Mr. Fields faces a life sentence in prison.

Mr. Fields was convicted in December in a Virginia court of first degree murder and other state charges for killing anti-racism activist Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others. A jury found that Mr. Fields intentionally plowed his car into a crowd of people protesting against the white nationalists.

The Unite the Right rally drew hundreds of white nationalists to Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds more turned out to protest against the white nationalists.

President Trump sparked a national uproar when he blamed the violence at the rally on “both sides,” a statement critics saw as a refusal to condemn racism.

After Tuesday’s plea hearing, U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said, “The defendant’s hate-inspired act of domestic terrorism not only devastated Heather Heyer’s wonderful family and the 28 peaceful protesters ... but it also left an indelible mark on the city of Charlottesville, our state and our country.

“While nothing can bring Ms. Heyer back or make the other 28 victims whole, it is our hope that this plea provides some closure and helps these victims move on with their lives.”

Ms. Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, said she and Ms. Heyer’s father agreed that they did not want prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

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

The car attack by Mr. Fields came after violent brawling between the two sides prompted police to disband the crowds.

During his state trial, prosecutors said Mr. Fields — who described himself on social media as an admirer of Adolf Hitler — drove his car directly into a crowd of counterprotesters because he was angry after witnessing earlier clashes between the two groups.

The jury rejected a claim by Mr. Fields’ lawyers that he acted in self-defense because he feared for his life after witnessing the earlier violence.

More than 30 people were hurt in the car attack. Some who received life-altering injuries described them in anguished detail during the state trial.

Jurors in Mr. Fields’ state trial recommended a life sentence plus 419 years, although a judge still has to decide on the punishment. Sentencing in state court is scheduled for July 15.

A reporter asked Ms. Bro if she thought her daughter’s death had served some purpose, such as opening a discussion of race relations. She answered: “Sadly, it took a white girl dying before anyone paid attention to civil rights around here ... Heather’s death is at least a catalyst for change.”

Ms. Bro said she wouldn’t have chosen that catalyst and added, “I wish we would have woken up sooner.”