WASHINGTON (AFP) — An American neo-Nazi was found guilty of murder on Friday for killing a woman when ramming his car into counter-protesters at a 2017 white supremacist rally that made Charlottesville a byword for racial violence under President Donald Trump.
A jury of seven women and five men reached their verdict near the end of the first day of deliberations of a trial that lasted a little under two weeks.
In addition to first-degree murder, which carries a possible life sentence, James Alex Fields Jr. was found guilty of five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, three of malicious wounding, and one hit-and-run count.
The August 12, 2017, violence, which claimed the life of 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer and injured dozens more, turned the bucolic university city in Virginia into a symbol of the growing audacity of the far-right under Trump — to the dismay of many of its residents.
Some relatives of the victims, who had taken their seats behind the prosecution on the right hand side of the Charlottesville Circuit Court, sobbed quietly as the verdict was read out, according to activists who were present.
While the fact that Fields had struck the protesters in his Dodge Challenger was not contested, his lawyers and prosecutors had offered contrasting narratives over his state of mind and intentions that day.
The defense said in their opening statements Fields had been “scared for his life” — perhaps hoping the jury might find him guilty of a lesser charge, such as second-degree murder.
The prosecution had called multiple witnesses and victims who recounted what, in some cases, turned out to be life-altering injuries.
Jeanne “Star” Peterson told the court she was fast on her feet till her right leg was run over by Fields’s car. Now, she finds it difficult to walk unassisted.
“I just heard three bumps,” Peterson said — realizing only later that two were his vehicle running over her right leg, and one reversing back over it.
“I saw Heather Heyer up in the air and remember thinking to myself, ‘That’s what someone’s eyes look like when they are dead.'”
Prosecutors showed jurors videos showing Fields carrying a shield and chanting anti-Semitic and homophobic slogans alongside other members of the far-right, and presented a text Fields had sent to his mother before departing for the rally after she had asked him to be careful.
“We’re not the one (sic) who need to be careful,” he replied, alongside a photo of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, whom he has long admired.
They also showed the jury two Instagram posts Fields uploaded in May that showed a car ramming into a group of protesters, arguing that he ultimately chose to live out that fantasy when the opportunity arose three months later.
Multiple witnesses called by the prosecution meanwhile testified that by the time of Fields’s afternoon attack, any hint of confrontations within the city had subsided after city authorities had ordered the far-right to disperse.
Tadrint Washington, a young African American woman who was in her Toyota Camry in the downtown area when it was rear-ended by Fields’s car, said she was struck by the joyful atmosphere.
“They were chanting, ‘Whose town? Our town!'” she recalled, as the counter-protesters streamed through the center of the city.
“I never seen so many white people standing up for black people. It was amazing. It was a ‘wow factor.'”
She banged her head as Fields drove into her car, and blacked out.
‘Are they OK?’
The defense for its part described a chaotic day in which several “Unite the Right” members and their opponents, some from the far-left Antifa, had come armed with guns.
Among the witnesses they called was Dwayne Dixon, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor.
According to a report in local media, Dixon admitted to writing a now-deleted Facebook post in January saying he “shooed” away Fields while holding a rifle sometime before the fatal car ramming.
They presented one of their most prized pieces of evidence on Tuesday: a videotape of Fields sobbing and breaking down to a police officer shortly after his arrest, as he asked: “Are they OK?”
But prosecutor Nina Antony countered that taped phone calls from jail showed that Fields lacked empathy with his victims, calling Heyer’s mother, Bro, an “anti-white communist.”
Molly Conger, a local activist and citizen journalist who has been following the events, tweeted afterwards that there “is a fundamental difference between remorse and the self-pity of someone who realizes their actions have real consequences.
Fields “was not crying for Heather Heyer; he was crying for himself.”