The government will seek a life sentence for Unite the Right car attack murderer James Alex Fields Jr., according to a sentencing memorandum filed Friday that outlines years of hateful behavior.
Fields, 22, pleaded guilty in March to 29 federal hate crimes charges, accepting a plea agreement that dropped a first-degree murder charge stemming from the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer. As a result of the dropped charge, Fields will not face the death penalty.
The 50-page document details years of racist and anti-Semitic behavior from Fields, drawing from his social media accounts, testimony from former classmates and prison phone calls.
Thomas Cullen, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher R. Kavanaugh and trial attorney Risa Berkower authored the memorandum.
As of Friday evening, Fields’ attorneys had not filed a response to the memorandum.
According to testimony, Fields regularly espoused racist ideology, likening minorities to animals and antagonizing classmates of color with slurs. In one particular instance, a former classmate describes Fields as being happy while visiting Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
“On a trip to Europe, the defendant came alive when they visited a Nazi concentration camp where Jews were exterminated by the thousands, claiming, ‘this is where the magic happened” and acting “like a kid at Disney World. Like he was loving it,’” federal prosecutors wrote.
Fields already had been found guilty of first-degree murder and nine other charges in a state trial last year. A jury recommended a sentence of life in prison plus 419 years.
Fields is scheduled to be sentenced in the state case in Charlottesville Circuit Court on July 15. He is set to be sentenced in the federal case on June 28.
When Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, testified last month in Congress about white supremacy violence, Fields heard about it on the news.
In a recorded phone call, he said, ‘that girl’s mother is talking to the Dems again, Congress, trying to get anti-white legislation passed,’ according to the sentencing memorandum.
“This conversation makes clear that, almost two years after killing Heather Heyer, the defendant still believes Heyer’s mother to be ‘anti-white,’” prosecutors wrote. “And, of course, this conversation confirms that even after he accepted responsibility for murdering Heather Heyer before this Court during his March 27, 2019, plea hearing, he continues to feel no remorse whatsoever for his crimes.”
Another former classmate said Fields advocated for a violent revolution to deal with the problems that he believed Jews, African Americans and other people he perceived to be non-white posed for American society.
“I would try to reason with him and say that you ought to, if you want something to change, you should vote for it,” the classmate is quoted as saying. “That is you know, that is your right to vote for it, but his, he would always be determined that violence was the answer to his problems.”
According to the former classmate, the purpose of the violence “was to make sure that Aryans were in charge.”
Motivation based on hatred is an essential factor for hate crime charges, with prosecutors needing to lay out how Fields’ views influenced his actions following the Unite the Right rally.
“The crowd angered him. They stood for everything that he had grown to hate, and he viewed them as the enemy … Motivated by his hatred of African Americans, Jewish people and anyone he considered non-white, he pressed the gas pedal and accelerated down the hill,” they wrote.
A unique case
Prosecutors wrote that this is a unique case.
“The government has been unable to identify any prior cases involving similar motivation, conduct and consequences,” they wrote. “The sheer quantity of victims in this case is staggering, and the government could have charged more.”
Prosecutors cited two other 2017 cases as possible precedents — the Manhattan truck attack that has not been resolved yet and the killing of an Indian man in a Kansas City bar. The man in the latter case was sentenced to life in prison last year.
The federal charges against Fields, even with the plea agreement, would result in a life sentence under the sentencing guidelines. However, prosecutors argued that those guidelines don’t account for the scope and severity of Fields’ crimes.
“The defendant’s adjusted base offense level, therefore, does not adequately reflect the gravity of his crime — the true level of carnage he visited upon the innocent people at the intersection of Fourth and Water Streets in Charlottesville,” prosecutors wrote. “If the defendant’s Guidelines were not already life imprisonment, an upward departure would be warranted to account for the complete scope of his crimes.”
They also argued that Fields’ mental health should not be a significant factor in his sentencing.
“In sum, any mental health concerns raised by the defendant do not overcome the defendant’s demonstrated lack of remorse and his prior history of substantial racial animus,” they wrote.
A life sentence would send a message to other individuals who might commit hate crimes or acts of domestic terror, the prosecutors wrote.
“The defendant was not the only white supremacist in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017, nor was he the only one engaged in violence,” they wrote. “It is not a crime to hate another individual because of his or her race, color, religion, or national origin, or to espouse those views to others. But it is a crime to commit acts of murder and violence in service to that hateful ideology.”
“A sentence of life imprisonment will demonstrate to those who share the defendant’s same hate-filled ideologies and who may be considering violent action that such crimes will be met with severe punishment.”