James Fields Guilty of First-Degree Murder in Death of Charlottesville Protester

James Fields Guilty of First-Degree Murder in Death of Charlottesville Protester

James Fields Jr. drove into a crowd of counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, killing one woman and injuring several other people.CreditCreditAlbemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, via Associated Press

By Jonathan M. Katz and Farah Stockman

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — After deliberating for more than seven hours on Friday, a Charlottesville jury convicted James Fields Jr. of first-degree murder, finding that the Ohio man intentionally drove his car into a crowd of protesters at a white nationalist rally last year, killing one woman and injuring nearly 40 others.

The jury, which heard testimony in a case in which hate and racism were as much on trial as Mr. Fields, also found the 21-year-old guilty of five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of leaving the scene of a crime. He faces up to life in prison for the death of Heather Heyer, 32, and for the aggravated woundings, and up to 20 years for the other offenses.

Friday’s verdict provides some closure in a case that cast a national spotlight on Charlottesville, the scene chosen by racists and anti-Semites to rally for their cause, near a Confederate monument that some city leaders were trying to remove. The August 2017 Unite the Right rally was marked by violent clashes between counterprotesters and white nationalists, some of whom were convicted earlier this year.

[Read: Year After White Nationalist Rally, Charlottesville Is in Tug of War Over Its Soul]

The nine-day trial featured days of emotional testimony from victims who were seriously injured in the crash, including a man who pushed his girlfriend out of the way, bearing the brunt of the impact himself, and a single mother who suffered two broken legs and a broken back. Many of the victims returned to the courtroom day after day to listen to other witnesses, and jurors saw them hugging and comforting one another.

During the trial, prosecutors introduced evidence that Mr. Fields intended to commit harm when he drove from Ohio to attend the rally, which featured neo-Nazis bearing swastikas and Ku Klux Klan members. In a text message exchange with his mother before the rally, Mr. Fields was told to “be careful.” “We’re not the one[s] who need to be careful,” he replied in a message that also included a photo of Adolf Hilter.

Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when Mr. Fields drove into a crowd of people.Creditvia Reuters

Prosecutors also showed the jury a cartoon that Mr. Fields had shared months earlier on Instagram of a car ramming into a crowd, with the words, “You have the right to protest but I’m late for work.” Other evidence included recordings of conversations that Mr. Fields had with his mother after his arrest, in which he described the counterprotesters at the rally as a “violent gang of terrorists,” and derided Ms. Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, as an “anti-white liberal” who should be viewed as an enemy.

[Read: In Charlottesville Murder Trial, Courtroom Relives Trauma of a Violent Day]

Mr. Fields’s defense lawyers did not dispute that he drove his car into the crowd, but claimed that he “acted out of fear” rather than malice, highlighting the scuffles and clashes that took place earlier that day between Unite the Right participants and anti-racism activists.

“There’s no evidence he came prepared to do any harm,” said John Hill, a defense lawyer, during the trial. The defense called Dwayne Dixon, an anti-racism activist, to testify, and he acknowledged shouting at a gray car while he had an AR-15 rifle slung over his shoulder.

But video footage from that day showed Mr. Fields’s car idling, unmolested at an intersection, and even backing up out of the camera frame before it sped ahead into the crowd.

The prosecutor, Nina-Alice Antony, argued during the trial that Mr. Fields clearly had “specific intent to kill a human being,” even if he had not singled out any particular person in the crowd.

Mr. Fields will be sentenced after victims give impact statements in this case. He also faces the death penalty in a second trial on federal hate crimes charges.

Jonathan M. Katz reported from Charlottesville, and Farah Stockman from Boston.


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