Man who rammed car into crowd in Charlottesville convicted of first-degree murder

James Alex Fields, Jr., 20, of Maumee, Ohio was arrested on suspicion of second-degree murder, and the car that rammed into the Charlottesville rally, Photo Date: 8/12/2017 / Photo: Abermarle Charlottesville Regional Jail / (MGN)

A man who drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in Virginia was convicted Friday of first-degree murder for killing a woman in an attack that inflamed racial and political tensions across the country. Jurors convicted James Alex Fields Jr. of eight other charges, including aggravated malicious wounding and hit and run.

Fields, 21, drove to Virginia from his home in Maumee, Ohio, to support the white nationalists. As a large group of counterprotesters marched through Charlottesville singing and laughing, he stopped his car, backed up, then sped into the crowd, according to testimony from witnesses and video surveillance shown to jurors.

A state jury rejected arguments that Fields acted in self-defense at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017. Prosecutors said Fields was angry after witnessing violent clashes between the two sides earlier in the day. The violence prompted police to shut down the rally before it even officially began.

Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and civil rights activist, was killed, and nearly three dozen others were injured. The trial featured emotional testimony from survivors who described devastating injuries and long, complicated recoveries.

The far-right rally had been organized in part to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis and other white nationalists — emboldened by the election of President Trump — streamed into the college town for one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists in a decade. Some dressed in battle gear.

Afterward, Mr. Trump inflamed tensions even further when he said "both sides" were to blame, a comment some saw as a refusal to condemn racism.

Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, spoke to CBS News on the anniversary of her daughter's death. She said it was "difficult to say" if the country had made progress since the deadly attack.

"What appeared to be closer together a year ago was not truly close together. It was more of an artificial covering over deep-seated wounds, a deep seated-infection in our society," Bro said. "I think last year's eruption gives us a little better understanding of how bad it is so that we can gradually and slowly heal. If you rush to heal, if you rush to grab each other and sing Kumbaya, we will be back here in a few years."

According to one of Fields' former teachers, he was known in high school for being fascinated with Nazism and idolizing Adolf Hitler. Jurors were shown a text message he sent to his mother days before the rally that included an image of the notorious German dictator. When his mother pleaded with him to be careful, he replied: "we're not the one (sic) who need to be careful."

During one of two recorded phone calls Fields made to his mother from jail in the months after he was arrested, he told her he had been mobbed "by a violent group of terrorists" at the rally. In another, Fields referred to the mother of the woman who was killed as a "communist" and "one of those anti-white supremacists."

Prosecutors also showed jurors a meme Fields posted on Instagram three months before the rally in which bodies are shown being thrown into the air after a car hits a crowd of people identified as protesters. He posted the meme publicly to his Instagram page and sent a similar image as a private message to a friend in May 2017.

But Fields' lawyers told the jury that he drove into the crowd on the day of the rally because he feared for his life and was "scared to death" by earlier violence he had witnessed. A video of Fields being interrogated after the crash showed him sobbing and hyperventilating after he was told a woman had died and others were seriously injured.

The jury will reconvene Monday to determine a sentence. Under the law, jurors can recommend from 20 years to life in prison. Fields is eligible for the death penalty if convicted of separate federal hate crime charges. No trial has been scheduled yet.


Heather Heyer, 32, died after a car plowed into a crowd of counter protesters at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017.