The white supremacist sympathizer who plowed a car into a crowd and killed a woman after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, pleaded guilty Wednesday afternoon to 29 federal hate crimes.
James Alex Fields Jr., a 21-year-old from Maumee, Ohio, was convicted of killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, a counterprotester at the “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017 earlier this year. Fields’ guilty plea to subsequent federal charges allowed him to avoid a possible death sentence. Fields entered the plea in federal court in Charlottesville.
Prosecutors dropped a 30th charge, which would have carried a possible death sentence.
Sentencing is set for July 3 in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville.
A federal grand jury charged Fields in June 2018 with one count of a hate crime act resulting in the death of Heyer; 28 counts of hate crime acts causing bodily injury and involving an attempt to kill; and one count of racially motivated violent interference with a federally protected activity.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr approved that plea agreement March 22.
In December, a Charlottesville state jury convicted Fields of first-degree murder, eight counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit and run. They recommended a sentence of life plus 419 years in prison. Fields is scheduled for sentencing July 15 on that conviction in Charlottesville Circuit Court. Fields and many others who participated in a torch-lit rally the night before the fatal crash remain defendants in a federal lawsuit.
According to testimony from Fields’ previous trial, on Aug. 11, 2017, Fields drove 540 miles from Maumee, Ohio, to Charlottesville. The next day, dressed in a white shirt and khaki pants, Fields met up with neo-Nazi hate group Vanguard America, whose members wore similar outfits, at one of the largest gatherings of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and “alt-right” adherents in decades. Fields held a shield emblazoned with Vanguard America’s logo as he rallied with the group near a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“Unite the Right,” which was to feature alt-right and white nationalist speakers, never got off the ground.
Beset by violent confrontations between alt-right adherents and counterprotesters, including fights and people throwing water bottles and other items at each other, the rally was declared an “unlawful assembly” by Virginia State Police shortly before it was scheduled to begin at noon.
In a video shown at Fields’ state trial, he can be seen mouthing words as the Vanguard America group marched out of downtown chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” and “You will not replace us!”
After the rally deteriorated into a series of violent confrontations and chaos, Fields gave three people rides back to their cars and then approached Fourth Street on the downtown pedestrian shopping mall. As he sat in a 2010 Dodge Challenger at one of the two automotive crossings on the pedestrian mall, Fields found himself staring at several hundred people, many of whom had been counterprotesters earlier in the day. Fields drove across the pedestrian mall, then stopped and looked at the crowd.
Fields backed his car across the pedestrian mall, then sat and idled for a moment. A security camera at the Red Pump Kitchen, a restaurant on the north side of the pedestrian mall, captured the car momentarily still with nothing behind it.
A video shows Fields plowed his car into the crowd at 1:42 p.m., hitting people, tossing several into the air and killing Heyer, a paralegal. After striking two other vehicles that had stopped for the gathering, Fields backed up and drove through town toward Interstate 64 in a car with a crumpled front end and busted windshield. Police stopped Fields in a neighborhood less than two miles from where he struck the crowd.
When Fields struck the counterprotesters, he also inflicted lifelong physical and emotional injuries on at least 10 people.
“I remember thinking, ‘OK, I’m being hit by a car. This is happening,’” counterprotester Wednesday Bowie testified during Fields’ state trial.
Bowie still walks with an uneven gait. Jeanne “Star” Peterson has had five surgeries on a shattered leg and uses a wheelchair and cane. Others are recovering from surgeries and emotional scars.
The intersection near where Heyer was killed is now a makeshift memorial to her with chalk-written messages and flowers. Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, has spoken publicly about her daughter and worked on anti-racism campaigns and efforts. Five other people were sentenced to state prison for taking part in the violence after “Unite the Right.”
Since the “Unite the Right” rally, the event’s organizer, Jason Kessler, is rarely seen in Charlottesville, his hometown, and he has tried publicly to distance himself from the alt-right.
Photo credit Eze Amos/AP Images