James Alex Fields Jr. will not receive the death penalty for driving his car into a crowd of people on Aug. 12, 2017.
On Wednesday, he pleaded guilty in Charlottesville Federal Court to 29 hate crime charges, including the first-degree murder of Heather Heyer, who was among those protesting the white supremacist Unite the Right rally earlier that day in downtown Charlottesville.
Fields, 21, is already facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in jail after he was convicted in December of first-degree murder. Each of the 29 counts he pleaded guilty to on Wednesday carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000.
A single count of “racially-motivated violent interference with a federally protected activity resulting in the death” of Heyer was dropped as a result of the plea agreement. That charge was the only one that could have resulted in the death penalty.
U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen told the court that he received a letter Friday from Attorney General William Barr directing him not to seek the death penalty if Fields pleaded guilty to 29 of the charges.
Dressed in a black-and-white-striped prison jumpsuit and sporting an unkempt beard, Fields shuffled into the federal courtroom Wednesday, causing a hush to fall over the space. Within the gallery, survivors of the car attack and their friends and family stared at the man from Maumee, Ohio, whose actions altered their lives forever.
Fields proceeded to plead guilty to one count of a hate crime resulting in Heyer’s death and 28 counts of hate crime acts attempting to kill or cause injury.
Cullen presented to the court a statement of the facts that would have been used if the case had gone to trial, highlighting the white supremacist views Fields expressed online.
“Fields expressed and promoted his view 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,” Cullen said.
At a press conference after the hearing, Cullen said a potential life imprisonment is an “acceptable result” for the case and the guilty pleas vindicated his office’s interest in protecting the civil rights of the victims. By avoiding a trial, the victims were spared having to relive the trauma of the attack, he said.
“The defendant’s hate-inspired act of domestic terrorism not only devastated Heather Heyer’s wonderful family and the 28 peaceful protestors who were injured at the intersection of Fourth and Water Streets, but it also left an indelible mark on the city of Charlottesville, our state and our country,” Cullen said. “Although the defendant’s guilty plea cannot undo the pain, suffering and loss that he caused, it is my hope that it will enable these victims and our community to continue the healing process.”
Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, said she was thankful to avoid the pain and trauma of another trial. She said she was glad the death penalty was taken off the table because Fields' death would not have brought back her daughter. She also hoped Field’s guilty plea brought him some closure.
“It’s a relief that maybe by acknowledging his guilt he can somehow get on with his life, I can get on with my life and the other victims can, too,” she said.
Though heartbroken by her daughter’s death, Bro said she finds some peace in knowing Heyer’s death has been a “catalyst for change.”
“Sadly, it took a white girl dying before anyone paid attention to civil rights around here,” she said. “The civil rights battle has been going on for the black community for 400 years now, and we didn’t pay attention.”
In a joint statement, the nation’s top law enforcement officials also connected the Charlottesville attack to other acts of white supremacist violence.
“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,” Barr said in a statement after the plea. “Prosecuting hate crimes is a priority for me as Attorney General. ... These hate crimes are also acts of domestic terrorism.”
“The violence in Charlottesville was an act of hate, and everyone across the country felt the impact,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in the same statement. “This guilty plea underscores that we won’t stand for hate and violence in our communities. Together with our law enforcement and community partners, we’ll continue to aggressively investigate hate crimes, domestic terrorism and civil rights violations.”
Fields will face up to 29 life sentences when he appears July 3 in Charlottesville Federal Court.
On July 15, he will be sentenced in Charlottesville Circuit Court. Jurors have recommended life in prison and a total of $480,000 in fines after they convicted Fields of first-degree murder, aggravated malicious wounding, malicious wounding and hit-and-run.