WASHINGTON — An American neo-Nazi who drove his car into a group of counter-protesters during a white supremacist rally in Virginia in 2017, killing a woman, pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes on Wednesday.
James Alex Fields Jr, 21, had already been sentenced to life imprisonment by a jury in Charlottesville in December after being convicted of murder and other charges.
Fields rammed his car into the group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017, killing 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of other people.
The counter-protesters had gathered in opposition to a group of white supremacists who came to the university town to protest the removal of a Confederate statue.
Fields pleaded guilty in federal court on Wednesday to 29 counts of violating the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Justice Department said in a statement.
Each count carries a maximum sentence of life in prison and a $250,000 fine.
“In the aftermath of the mass murder in New Zealand earlier this month, we are reminded that a diverse and pluralistic community such as ours can have zero tolerance for violence on the basis of race, religion, or association with people of other races and religions,” Attorney General Bill Barr said.
“Prosecuting hate crimes is a priority for me as attorney general,” Barr said.
“The defendant in this case has pled guilty to 29 hate crimes which he committed by driving his car into a crowd of protesters,” he said. “These hate crimes are also acts of domestic terrorism.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray also described Fields’ actions as a case of “domestic terrorism” and said “we won’t stand for hate and violence in our communities.”
President Donald Trump drew broad criticism in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence when he spoke of “blame on both sides,” appearing to establish a moral equivalence between the white supremacists and those who opposed them.
The incident turned Charlottesville into a symbol of the growing audacity of the far right under Trump.
Fields had driven overnight from his hometown of Maumee, Ohio, to support the “Unite the Right” rally to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee, the top general of the pro-slavery Confederacy during the 1861-1865 American Civil War.
The Justice Department said Fields had admitted that prior to the attack, “he used social media accounts to express and promote white supremacist views.”
These included support for “the social and racial policies of Adolf Hitler and Nazi-era Germany, including the Holocaust; and to espouse violence against African-Americans, Jewish people, and members of other racial, ethnic, and religious groups.”