CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — An avowed white supremacist who drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters during a white nationalist rally in Virginia was sentenced to life in prison Friday on hate crime charges.
James Alex Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio, had pleaded guilty in March to the 2017 attack that killed anti-racism activist Heather Heyer and injured more than two dozen others.
In exchange, prosecutors dropped their request for the death penalty. His attorneys asked for a sentence less than life. He will be sentenced next month on separate state charges.
Before the judge handed down his sentence, Fields, accompanied by one of his lawyers, walked to a podium in the courtroom and spoke.
“I apologize for the hurt and loss I’ve caused,” he said, later adding, “Every day I think about how things could have gone differently and how I regret my actions. I’m sorry.”
Fields’ comment came after more than a dozen survivors of and witnesses to the attack delivered emotional testimony about the physical and psychological wounds they had received as a result of the events that day.
The “Unite the Right” rally on August 12, 2017, drew hundreds of white nationalists to Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The case stirred racial tensions around the country.
Fields was charged with 29 hate crime counts and one count of “racially motivated violent interference.” He pleaded guilty to 29 of the counts.
The prosecution played videos that showed Fields stop his car and reverse up a hill before commencing his deadly assault on counter-protesters who were singing and celebrating after city officials had ordered the far-right demonstrators to leave.
In order to build their case of a premeditated attack, prosecutors presented a text Fields 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 had long admired.
They also showed the jury two Instagram posts Fields uploaded in May last year that depicted 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.
In a sentencing memo filed in court last week, Fields’ lawyers asked US District Judge Michael Urbanski to consider a sentence of “less than life.”
“No amount of punishment imposed on James can repair the damage he caused to dozens of innocent people. But this Court should find that retribution has limits,” his attorneys wrote.
Fields’ attorneys highlighted his difficult upbringing and history of mental illness, but many of the details were redacted from public viewing. He was raised by a paraplegic single mother and suffered “trauma” by growing up knowing that his Jewish grandfather had murdered his grandmother before committing suicide, his lawyers said.
Fields faces sentencing in state court on July 15. A jury has recommended life plus 419 years.
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