A neo-Nazi sympathizer from Ohio received two consecutive and 27 concurrent life sentences in federal prison for killing a counterprotester and injuring others in the aftermath of 2017’s racist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The sentence, handed down Friday by U.S. District Judge Michael F. Urbanski, marked the first of two hearings for James Alex Fields, 22. A state court judge will decide whether to impose a jury’s recommendation of life plus 419 years in prison for Fields during a hearing July 15.
Fields pleaded guilty in March to 29 federal hate crimes. In exchange, prosecutors did not seek the death penalty.
A jury in state court in December found Fields guilty of first-degree murder, eight counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit and run. After his arrest, Fields became a hero to the racist “alt-right,” who referred to him as a “political prisoner.” Fields has been used by far-right and alt-right groups in online fundraising pitches aimed at helping the people arrested after “Unite the Right.”
Matthew Heimbach, a neo-Nazi who once headed the Traditionalist Worker Party, posted photos on social media of himself standing outside the Albemarle Regional Jail, where Fields and others were held. Heimbach wrote of visiting “our people” inside the jail.
Fields drove from Maumee, Ohio, to Charlottesville, a city of 48,000 people, arriving on the morning of Aug. 12, 2017, just hours before the scheduled start of “Unite the Right.” The rally had been billed as a protest in favor of keeping two statues of Confederate generals standing in public parks.
The rally disintegrated into a series of fights, and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared it an unlawful assembly shortly before noon. A spectator filmed Fields marching with the neo-Nazi group Vanguard America away from what was then called Emancipation Park, which houses the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The group chanted, “Jews will not replace us!” and “You will not replace us!” as they left downtown.
Fields returned to his 2010 Dodge Challenger and, after giving three people rides back to their cars, began to navigate through downtown Charlottesville.
After turning left onto Fourth Street, Fields crossed the pedestrian mall and saw two cars stopped ahead of him and a large group of counterprotesters who had gathered at Fourth and Market Streets. A security camera at the Red Pump Kitchen on the mall captured video of Fields pulling forward, then backing up and stopping momentarily.
At 1:42 p.m., Fields gunned the engine and plowed into the crowd. He killed 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer and injured at least 19 other people. He also crashed into another car, which had stopped for the crowd.
Fields fled the scene, but police caught him about two miles from the site of the deadly crash. He was arrested a short time later.
The site where Heyer died and the others were injured has become a makeshift memorial of chalk inscriptions, flowers and candles on the walls of the businesses on either side of the narrow street.
Four other people have been sentenced to prison for the violence that surrounded the rally. A fifth man, Tyler Watkins Davis of Middleburg, Florida, is scheduled for sentencing in August for his role in beating DeAndre Harris, a then-21-year-old special education aide, in a parking garage that day.
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, has spoken publicly at the memorial about her daughter and worked on anti-racism campaigns since her death.
During the hearing Fields attempted to show remorse: “I apologize for all the hurt and loss that I caused. I apologize to my mom for putting her through all this.” But Heyer’s mother wasn’t buying it. “He’s the least sincere person I ever saw,” Bro said at a press conference following the sentencing. Neither was the judge, who told the court that Field’s deadly actions that day constituted “a crime of premeditation and deliberation.” And neither was survivor Marcus Martin, who told Fields during the hearing: “I don’t feel bad for you. I hope you get everything you deserve.”
This story has been updated to include new details.
Photo illustration by SPLC