James Alex Fields Jr., convicted of murdering Heather Heyer, will spend the rest of his life in prison, following a sentencing hearing in federal court Friday at which he expressed remorse for his actions.
On Aug. 12, 2017, Fields drove his car into a crowd of people protesting the Unite the Right white supremacist rally in downtown Charlottesville, killing Heyer and injuring dozens.
Fields, 22, accepted a plea agreement in March, pleading guilty to 29 federal hate crime counts.
On Friday, Fields received 29 life sentences for each hate crime and fines of $100 per count. Of those, 28 will run concurrently, and will run concurrently with any state sentence, according to the court.
Each of the 29 counts he pleaded guilty to carried a possible maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000.
Fields, speaking for the first time in either trial, apologized for the harm he caused Heyer, the other victims, his mother and for “reopening wounds” with the state trial last year.
“Every day I think about how things could have gone different and how I regret my actions,” he said.
The case is unique among hate crime prosecutions, according to a memorandum prosecutors filed earlier in the month, and may serve as a deterrent to other white supremacists.
Haunting footage of the car attack was presented to the court Friday. Images of each of Fields’ victims and the injuries they sustained also were presented, prompting many victims and supporters to leave the courtroom. Sobbing occasionally punctuated the somber atmosphere.
Many victims of Fields’ attack and their families — most identified only by their initials — gave impact statements. Many asked for a life sentence while a few requested the death penalty, despite the terms of the plea agreement.
After each of the victims’ testimony, friends and family gave quiet snaps of support, creating a sense of community within a difficult situation.
Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, said she had fought through her grief and channeled her pain into a fight for civil rights. Despite the deep wounds Fields inflicted on her family, Bro said she never wished to see him put to death.
“I would like to see him find meds that help heal his mind,” she said. “I would like to see him grow from a white supremacist into someone who can help bring others away from white supremacy.”
Mark Heyer said his daughter had come to the counter-protest to show people that there was a better way to live life than through hatred.
“I want the court and Mr. Fields to know that after everything we’ve heard today, that I forgive you,” he said.
A friend of Heyer’s, who traveled with Heyer to the counter-protest, said she still grapples with survivor’s guilt, knowing that she easily could have died instead of Heyer.
“There were four of us on August 12, united to fight racism and white supremacy; today, there are only three,” the victim said in written statement.
Another of Heyer’s friends, who himself was struck by Fields’ car, said he initially did not want to speak at the hearing. Addressing Fields directly, he said the defendant’s actions spoke louder than words ever could.
“You took away a great person, a daughter and a friend,” he said. “I don’t feel bad for you.”
In a long statement, a victim identified as LQ detailed the extensive medical and psychological damage she endured as a result of the attack. Painting a narrative connection between Fields’ actions and America’s history of white supremacy, she stressed the importance of fighting injustice.
“I went because, as we all should know by now, silence only helps the oppressor,” she said.
Two FBI agents testified about evidence they collected, including interviews with Fields’ former classmates that showcased a long history of racist and incendiary behavior.
Much of the behavior was detailed in the earlier released sentencing memorandum, including a story of a “joyful” Fields visiting the Dachau concentration camp on a school trip to Germany. While at the camp, students visited the showers where Jewish people were exterminated with gas. Upon entering the room, Fields reportedly said with glee that he could almost hear them screaming still.
Fields’ multiple Twitter accounts were dredged, showing an individual with a reverence for Adolf Hitler and a habit of launching racial slurs at anyone who disagreed with him.
During closing arguments, U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said that the wealth of evidence spoke for itself and to sentence Fields to less than life behind bars would be an injustice.
“These were the actions of a deep-seated racist who held virulent anti-Semitic beliefs, not an aberrant or impulsive action but rather the violent expression of a white supremacist,” he said.
Lisa Lorish, Fields’ court-appointed defense attorney, argued for a sentence less than life in prison.
“We’re asking for a sentence less than life not because our client deserves it but because incarceration alone will never be able to heal the harm he caused to this community and because it is better to err on the side that people can change and that our worst aspects don’t mark us for life,” she said.
In the end, Chief Judge Michael Urbanski said he could not sentence Fields to less than life in prison without the possibility of release for each of the counts. The victim testimony had been harrowing, he said, and the videos of the attack so grueling in their brutality that he had to turn away at times.
“It is not lost on this court that many of the victims are young people who will have to deal with the trauma for years to come,” Urbanski said.
“This sentence is expressly intended to show that those who commit violent acts of hate will be severely punished,” he said.
Fields must still be sentenced in Charlottesville Circuit Court for state crimes. Jurors recommended life in prison and a total of $480,000 in fines after they convicted Fields in December of first-degree murder, aggravated malicious wounding, malicious wounding and hit-and-run. The sentencing is scheduled for July 15.