CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Civil rights activists in this Virginia city say they hope the first-degree murder conviction of a man who drove into a group of counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in 2017 will help with healing their violence-scarred community.
In convicting James Alex Fields Jr. of first-degree murder, a state jury on Friday rejected defense arguments that the 21-year-old defendant had acted in self-defense during a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. Jurors also convicted Fields of eight other charges, including aggravated malicious wounding and hit and run.
The jury will reconvene Monday to recommend a sentence. Under Virginia law, jurors can recommend from 20 years to life in prison on the first-degree murder charge.
Fields is eligible for the death penalty if convicted of separate federal hate crime charges. No trial has been scheduled yet.
During trial, jurors heard that Fields drove to Virginia from his home in Maumee, Ohio, to support the white nationalists. As a large group of counterprotesters marched through Charlottesville singing and laughing, he stopped his car, backed up, then sped into the crowd, according to testimony from witnesses and video surveillance shown to jurors.
Prosecutors said Fields was angry after witnessing violent clashes between the two sides earlier in the day. The violence prompted police to shut down the rally before it even officially began.
Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, was killed, and nearly three dozen others were injured. The trial featured emotional testimony from survivors who described devastating injuries and long, complicated recoveries.
After the verdict was read, some of those who had been injured embraced Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro. She left the courthouse without commenting.
Charlottesville City Councilor Wes Bellamy said he hopes the verdict “allows our community to take another step toward healing and moving forward.”
Charlottesville civil rights activist Tanesha Hudson said she sees the guilty verdict as the city’s way of saying, “We will not tolerate this in our city.”
“We don’t stand for this type of hate,” she said.
White nationalist Richard Spencer, who had been scheduled to speak at the Unite the Right rally, described the verdict as a “miscarriage of justice.”
“I am sadly not shocked, but I am appalled by this,” he told The Associated Press of Field’s conviction. “He was treated as a terrorist from the get-go.”
Spencer popularized the term “alt-right” to describe a fringe movement loosely mixing white nationalism, anti-Semitism and other far-right extremist views. He said he doesn’t feel any personal responsibility for the violence.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “As a citizen, I have a right to protest. I have a right to speak. That is what I came to Charlottesville to do.”
The far-right rally had been organized in part to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis and other white nationalists — emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump — streamed into the college town for one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists in a decade.
According to one of his former teachers, Fields was known in high school for being fascinated with Nazism and idolizing Adolf Hitler. Jurors were shown a text message he sent to his mother days before the rally that included an image of the notorious German dictator.
During one of two recorded phone calls Fields made to his mother from jail in the months after he was arrested, he told her he had been mobbed “by a violent group of terrorists” at the rally. In another, Fields referred to the mother of the woman who was killed as a “communist” and “one of those anti-white supremacists.”
Prosecutors also showed jurors a meme Fields posted on Instagram three months before the rally in which bodies are shown being thrown into the air after a car hits a crowd of people identified as protesters. He posted the meme publicly to his Instagram page.
But Fields’ lawyers told the jury that he drove into the crowd on the day of the rally because he feared for his life and was “scared to death” by earlier violence he had witnessed. A video of Fields being interrogated after the crash showed him sobbing and hyperventilating after he was told a woman had died and others were seriously injured.
Wednesday Bowie, who was struck by Fields’ car and suffered a broken pelvis and other injuries, said she was gratified by the guilty verdict.
“This is the best I’ve been in a year and a half,” Bowie said.