Heather Heyer’s killer facing centuries in prison, but his legal saga isn’t over
A jury has recommended centuries in prison for James Fields, convicted of killing Heather Heyer at a white nationalist rally, but the justice system is far from done with him.
The sentence, put forth by a Charlottesville, Virginia, jury Tuesday, awaits a judge’s approval, which is expected March 29, and the 21-year-old is due in federal court next month for a proceeding in his hate crimes trial as well.
After finding Fields guilty in Heyer’s death last week, the jury in his state trial suggested the judge sentence the defendant to life in prison for the murder charge, plus an additional 419 years on several other counts. Jurors also want him to pay $480,000 in fines for his actions at the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania called the verdict “Charlottesville’s small part in rejecting and holding accountable those whose violent acts against others are fueled by hatred.”
Judge Richard Moore can either rubber stamp or overrule the verdict. He will also decide if the sentences run consecutively or concurrently.
Before learning his official fate in the state trial, however, Fields will appear in US District Court to answer to 30 hate crime charges related to Heyer’s killing and the injuries the state found him guilty of committing.
A status conference in that case is scheduled for January 31. Fields has pleaded not guilty to the hate crime charges.
According to the federal indictment, before the August 12, 2017, rally, Fields took to social media and “expressed and promoted his belief that white people are superior to other races and peoples; expressed support of the social and racial policies of Adolf Hitler and Nazi-era Germany, including the Holocaust; and espoused violence against African Americans, Jewish people and members of other racial, ethnic and religious groups he perceived to be non-white.”
The day before the rally, as Fields was preparing to leave his home in Maumee, Ohio, to travel to Charlottesville, he received a text from a family member urging him to be careful, the indictment says.
“We’re not the ones who need to be careful,” Fields responded, attaching a photo of Hitler, according to the indictment.
Once in Charlottesville, he joined protesters — gathered to denounce the removal of a Confederate statue from a city park — in “chants promoting or expressing white supremacist and other racist and anti-Semitic views,” the indictment says.
Later that day, after police declared the rally an unlawful assembly and ordered protesters to disperse, Fields began driving the streets of Charlottesville in his Dodge Challenger, eventually arriving at the narrow, one-way Fourth Street, where he encountered a “racially and ethnically diverse crowd of individuals” at the bottom of a hill, the indictment says.
“Many of the individuals in the crowd were chanting and carrying signs promoting equality and protesting against racial and other forms of discrimination,” according to the indictment.
Fields drove toward the crowd, then backed up a hill on Fourth Street and came to a stop.
“Fields rapidly accelerated, through a stop sign and across a raised pedestrian mall, and drove directly into the crowd. Fields’s vehicle stopped only when it struck another vehicle near the intersection of Fourth and Water Streets. Fields then rapidly reversed his car and fled the scene,” the indictment says.
“As Fields drove into and through the crowd, Fields struck numerous individuals, killing Heather Heyer and injuring many others.”
The indictment charges him with a hate crime act resulting in death, bias-motivated interference with a federally protected activity resulting in death and 28 counts of a hate crime act involving an attempt to kill.
Possibly providing a peek into his legal strategy on the federal charges, Fields’ legal team during his state trial claimed their client believed he was acting in self-defense.
Defense attorneys also presented testimony from University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Murrie, who said Fields had a family history of mental illness, was prescribed antipsychotic medication at age 6 and was diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder at 14.
“Mr. Fields did not come to Charlottesville in good mental health. In fact, he came to Charlottesville not having taken medication in two years,” a defense attorney argued. “On August 12, he was a mentally compromised individual.”
Murrie determined that Fields was legally sane at the time of the attack, which is why the state prosecution was able to proceed.