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The young neo-Nazi who murdered Heather Heyer has been sentenced to life in prison for federal hate crime charges. He also wounded 35 others when he drove into a crowd of protesters during the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago.
James Alex Fields Jr., now 22, apologized to the judge before receiving his sentence Friday. Earlier this year, he pleaded guilty to 29 federal hate crime charges to avoid the death penalty. He was also convicted in December on state charges, including first-degree murder, and a jury recommended he spend life plus 419 years in state prison.
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, was in the Charlottesville courtroom and talked about the pain of losing her daughter. She also said that she hopes Fields can “heal someday and help others heal.”
Prosecutors had an uphill battle proving Fields guilty of hate crimes, especially at the federal level. But they presented several pieces of evidence to demonstrate Fields’ extremist views and argued that his actions that day were intentional rather than impulsive.
For example, in the five months leading up to the attack, Fields tweeted or sent via direct message 30 images of Hitler and six images depicting the nerve gas that Nazis used to commit mass genocide. Prosecutors noted that he had a Nazi-era German battle flag hanging on his bedroom wall and a framed photograph of Adolf Hitler on his bedside table.
Prosecutors also included snippets of testimony from former classmates. One classmate recalled a field trip to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. “I overheard [James Fields] say, “This is where the magic happened,” the classmate said. “He was happy in one of the saddest places I have ever been.”
As more evidence of Fields’ intent, prosecutors filed a memo last week to remind the judge that Fields had posted two memes in the months leading up to the August 14, 2017, rally showing cars running over protesters.
But lawyers representing Fields, who's from Maumee, Ohio, had asked Judge Michael Urbanski to spare him from a life sentence, due to his young age, traumatic childhood, and history of mental illness.
Prosecutors deflected that argument by playing tapes of calls Fields made from jail, in which he told his mother that he was trying to persuade the doctor that he was mentally ill. “I kinda like skewed it a bit,” he said on one recording.
The Justice Department, with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the helm, filed federal hate crime charges against Fields almost a year ago to the day. Sessions framed the decision to pursue hate crime charges against Fields as a symbolic act of condemnation of the Charlottesville rally.
“At the Department of Justice, we remain resolute that hateful ideologies will not have the last word and that their adherents will not get away with violent crimes against those they target,” Sessions said.” Today’s indictment should send a clear message to every would-be criminal in America that we aggressively prosecute violent crimes of hate that threaten the core principles of our nation.”
The indictment noted that Heyer, who was 32, was standing among a “racially and ethnically diverse crowd” when Fields accelerated his vehicle into the group, sending bodies flying, before he reversed up the hill and sped away. “Many of the individuals in the crowd were chanting and carrying signs promoting equality and protesting against racial and other forms of discrimination,” the indictment stated.
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)