James Alex Fields Jr., the young neo-Nazi who plowed his car into a crowd of protesters during the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year, was found guilty of first-degree murder on Friday for the death of Heather Heyer. He's now facing up to 20 years in prison.
Jurors deliberated for seven hours after the nearly two-week-long trial, which included gut-wrenching testimony from some of the Charlottesville residents who were impacted physically or psychologically Fields’ actions that day.
In addition to the first-degree murder charge, 21-year-old Fields, who drove from Maumee, Ohio, to attend the rally, was convicted of three counts of malicious wounding, three counts of aggravated malicious wounding, and two counts of felonious assault. His sentencing hearing is scheduled to begin Monday.
Separately, Fields is also facing 29 counts of federal hate crime charges — including the possibility of the death penalty.
During the trial, prosecutors sought to demonstrate that Fields’ actions were premeditated. In one instance, they used a meme that he’d shared in May 2017 of a car ramming into protesters as evidence of his intent.
Attorneys representing Fields had tried to argue that he was acting in self-defense when he accelerated into the crowd, and they showed body camera footage from when police initially apprehended him about a mile away from the scene of the crime. In the footage, Fields told the officer, “I didn’t want to hurt people. I thought they were attacking me.” The attorneys also called Dwayne Dixon, an antifa professor from University of North Carolina, to the stand to testify that a frightening social media post had scared Fields away from the park where the rally was taking place.
But in closing arguments Thursday, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina-Alice Antony urged the jury to hone-in on what she believed was the question at the center of the case: “What was in his mind when he flew into the crowd?" She noted that the evidence showed Fields had idled in his vehicle before accelerating into the group of protesters. At that moment, Antony told the jury, he “seized his opportunity to make the Instagram post a reality."
Prosecutors also highlighted Fields' ideological bent by pointing to photographs of him marching alongside white supremacists earlier in the day, holding a shield emblazoned with the logo of a neo-Nazi group. They also showed a text message he’d sent his mother on Aug. 11, the night before the Unite the Right rally that read, “We’re not the one (sic) who needs to be careful,” along with a meme of Adolf Hitler.
Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard E. Moore, who presided over the case, said the jury selection process was one of the most complicated he’d ever participated in during his 37 years as an attorney and six years as a judge.
The complexity, Moore said, stemmed from the fact that it was difficult identifying jurors in Charlottesville who were not deeply affected by Unite the Right. The pool of potential jurors ultimately totaled 360, out of which a jury of nine women and seven men (four of whom served as alternates) were selected. All but one member of the jury were white.
Cover image: This undated file photo provided by the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail shows James Alex Fields Jr. (Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail via AP, File)