James Fields Sentenced to Life in Prison for Death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville

James Fields Jr., the white supremacist who murdered a woman two summers ago when he steered a Dodge Challenger into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., was sentenced Friday to life in federal prison.

Prosecutors had argued that Mr. Fields’s racist, anti-Semitic beliefs motivated his decision to attend the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and to attack counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others.

“This was calculated, it was coldblooded, it was motivated by this deep-seated racial animus,” Thomas T. Cullen, the United States attorney for the Western District of Virginia, said after the sentence was announced. He said the case set a precedent for future instances of domestic terrorism.

Lawyers for Mr. Fields, 22, had pleaded for mercy, citing his difficult childhood and mental health problems.

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CreditFacebook, via Reuters

Mr. Fields was among hundreds of white supremacists who swarmed Charlottesville in August 2017 for the rally, in which they shouted anti-Semitic phrases, marched with tiki torches and attacked a racially diverse group of counterprotesters. The rally appeared to be winding down when Mr. Fields drove his car into a crowd of those counterprotesters.

The sheer number of white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville, and President Trump’s assertion afterward that bad actors on “many sides” were to blame for the violence, led to a national reckoning on the ascendance of white supremacy and the threats it poses.

Ms. Heyer, 32, a paralegal, was known in Charlottesville as someone who spoke out when she saw injustice.

“Heather was a very strong woman” who stood up against “any type of discrimination,” Alfred A. Wilson, a manager at the law firm where she worked, said shortly after her death. “That’s just how she’s always been.”

In court on Friday, Ms. Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, asked for a life sentence but said she hoped Mr. Fields “can heal someday and help others heal,” The Associated Press reported.

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CreditAlbemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, via Associated Press

Mr. Fields pleaded guilty to 29 federal charges earlier this year, including a hate crime for Ms. Heyer’s death. Federal prosecutors dropped another charge that could have led to the death penalty.

When Mr. Fields pleaded guilty, Attorney General William P. Barr said in a statement that the hate crimes were “acts of domestic terrorism” and that prosecuting them was a priority for his office.

The attacks forever changed Charlottesville and the United States, officials said Friday.

“He harmed this whole community, and he harmed our country through despicable racial violence,” Eric S. Dreiband, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said at a news conference on Friday.

Mr. Fields’s lawyers had asked the judge for a sentence that would allow him to eventually be released from prison. Mr. Fields had been trying to leave the rally to return home to Ohio, his lawyers said, but found the street blocked by counterprotesters and made the split-second decision to drive through them.

“The essential property of mercy is that it applies to the undeserving,” his lawyers wrote in a sentencing memo, which cited Mr. Fields’s mental illness and relative youth as reasons for something less than a life term.

Mr. Fields was convicted separately in state court of first-degree murder in December, and jurors recommended a life sentence. A judge will decide in the coming weeks whether to accept that recommendation.

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