The man who murdered Heather Heyer and injured more than 30 others during a violent white nationalist rally was formally sentenced Monday to life in prison plus 419 years.
James Alex Fields Jr., 22, was convicted in Charlottesville Circuit Court in December of 10 charges, including the first-degree murder of Heyer, after he traveled from his Ohio home to a rally in Charlottesville and then consciously drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters after the Aug. 12, 2017, rally was broken up by police.
After two days of deliberation in December, a jury recommended life in prison plus 419 years and $480,000 in fines. Charlottesville circuit Judge Richard E. Moore upheld that recommended sentence Monday and said he found it to be a proper display of justice.
Monday, victims of Fields’ attack gave victim impact statements, airing their grievances and pain to Moore.
Star Peterson, who sustained grievous injuries in the attack, was the first to speak, talking directly to Fields against the court’s wishes.
“Hello scum,” Peterson began her statement, before going on to describe Fields as a “terrible waste of flesh” and “human feces.” Though her statement did not last long before she was stopped by court officials, Peterson later said she stood by what she said.
April Muñiz, who was present during the attack but did not sustain physical injuries, said her mental health suffered greatly as a result.
Unable to perform the job she had beforehand, she was laid off and spent months in a deep depression, she said. It wasn’t until Fields’ trial last year that Muñiz said she was able to find a community of support among the other victims and survivors.
William Burke, who traveled from Ohio to counter-protest at the rally, suffered a head injury in the attack. Problems caused by his physical and emotional injuries have pervaded his life, he said, and contributed to the end of his marriage. He said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and forgetfulness and has had trouble feeling joy.
“Just yesterday, my daughter looked at me and asked why I don’t smile anymore,” he said. “What do you say to that?”
Constance Young, who was among those injured, said that like many of the other victims, she’s found herself unable to enjoy regular activities that trigger memories of the attack. Though physically and mentally injured, she clarified that she is still resilient in the face of the attack.
“I want the court to know that the white supremacy [that Fields] traveled here to uphold is what has ruined his life,” she said.
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, said she was inconsolable for the first few weeks after her daughter’s death but pushed through those feelings to continue her daughter’s vision. Heather Heyer was virtually unknown among activists, Bro said, but through the act of showing up, she drew attention to systematic racial inequality.
“The simple act of showing up is all she did,” Bro said. “And I’m here to tell you that’s all you have to do, just show up and stand up against hatred for what is right.”
In her closing arguments, Fields’ attorney, Denise Lunsford, initially focused on her client’s mental illness before changing gears and lamenting what she described as a “double-standard” among court hearings related to Aug. 12, 2017.
Lunsford, a former Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney, said the Charlottesville community had demanded counter-protesters charged at the rally be freed while also calling for white supremacists charged at the rally to feel the full force of the law. It was this perceived “double-standard” that prompted Lunsford to unsuccessfully argue for a trial change of venue.
Victims seeking closure will not find it in court, Lunsford said, before arguing that many of those affected have chosen to remain victims instead of becoming stronger as a result and employing compassion.
“Closure has to come from the person who needs the closure, it cannot be given by the court, by [Fields] or by a sentence,” she said.
Additionally, she argued that had this car attack happened at another event — specifically at one of Charlottesville’s popular summer Friday After Five events — then the trial’s outcome may have been different.
Nina-Alice Antony, assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Charlottesville, took specific issue with this argument, pointing to evidence from the trial that she said showed Fields came to the city with hatred in his heart and an intent to harm others.
“‘We’re not the ones who need to be afraid’ is what he texted his mother the morning of the rally,” Antony said.
While not trying to minimize Fields’ long and well-documented history of mental illness, Antony said the court was there because of decisions the convicted made. To argue that mental illness was a major contributing factor ignores that fact that Fields backed up before ramming into the crowd and lessens his culpability, she said.
Moore ultimately agreed with the commonwealth and upheld the jury-recommended sentence, describing the attack as “an act of terror.” He reiterated his earlier rulings that an unbiased jury had been sat and said he felt the jury’s verdict was well-reasoned and appropriate.
In his decades of legal experience, Moore said he had never seen so many injuries caused from a single incident. The fact that Fields had never walked back claims that he was scared and surrounded by counter-protesters before he drove into the crowd — which was proven false through ample video evidence — sat poorly with the judge.
“Clearly, he was not trying to get out of the situation; he was trying to run them down,” Moore said.
In addition to the life term and 419 years, Moore added an additional three years, all suspended. In the unlikely event that Fields receives geriatric release after age 60, Moore said this suspended time will put him under three years of supervised probation.
The full breakdown of Fields’ sentence is: life in prison and a $100,000 fine for the first-degree murder conviction; 70 years and a $70,000 fine for each of the five aggravated malicious wounding charges; 20 years in prison and pay $10,000 in fines for the three malicious wounding convictions; and nine years for the hit-and-run conviction.
Fields already is serving multiple life sentences after accepting a plea agreement in his federal hate crimes case. Last month, he was sentenced to 29 life sentences, 28 of which are running concurrently. The state sentence will run consecutively to his federal sentence.