The self-professed neo-Nazi who drove his car into a crowd protesting against white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., killing one of the demonstrators, has been sentenced to life in prison plus 419 years on his first-degree murder conviction.
James Fields Jr., 22, was found guilty by a state court jury last December of murder, plus eight counts of malicious wounding and a hit-and-run offence.
Fields, a resident of Maumee, Ohio, has already received a life sentence without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty in March to federal hate-crime charges stemming from the violence in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017.
Heather Heyer, 32, one of the counter-demonstrators, was killed in the attack.
Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore followed a state jury’s recommendation in handing down the sentence. Under state law, he was allowed to go lower than the recommendation, but not higher.
“Mr. Fields, you had choices. We all have choices,” Moore said. “You made the wrong ones and you caused great harm. …. You caused harm around the globe when people saw what you did.”
The state sentence is mainly symbolic given that Fields was already sentenced to life on the federal charges.
“For his purposes, he has one life to give, so this is a largely academic exercise,” noted Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University.
The deadly car ramming capped a day of tension and physical clashes between hundreds of white nationalists and neo-Nazis who had gathered in Charlottesville for a “Unite the Right” rally, and groups of demonstrators opposed to them.
By then, police had already declared an unlawful assembly and cleared a city park of the white nationalists, who were protesting the removal of statues commemorating two Confederate generals of the U.S. Civil War.
The night before, Unite the Right protesters had staged a torch-lit march through the nearby University of Virginia campus chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans.
The events proved a turning point in the rise of the “alt-right,” a loose alignment of fringe groups centred on white nationalism and emboldened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 election. Trump was strongly criticized by fellow Republicans and Democrats for saying after Charlottesville that “both sides” were to blame for the violence.
Mother of victim hopes Fields ‘never sees the light of day’
Jeanne “Star” Peterson, one of seven people who gave victim impact statements before the sentencing, called Fields “scum.”
Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, told Moore during her statement that she hopes Fields will find “reclamation” in prison but also that he “never sees the light of day.”
During his state court trial, Fields’s lawyers never disputed he was behind the wheel of the Dodge Challenger that sent bodies flying when the vehicle slammed into Heyer and about 30 other people. Instead, the defence suggested Fields felt intimidated by the hostile crowds.
Prosecutors countered he was motivated by hatred and had come to the rally to harm others. The defendant, who has identified himself as a neo-Nazi, was photographed hours before the car attack carrying a shield with an emblem of a far-right hate group.
Less than a month before the events in Charlottesville, he had posted an image on Instagram showing a car plowing through a crowd of people captioned: “you have the right to protest but I’m late for work.”