A federal grand jury on Wednesday indicted James Alex Fields Jr. on 30 hate crime charges in the deadly Aug. 12 car attack that killed one and injured dozens. He could face the death penalty.
“Peaceful protest is every American’s birthright,” FBI Special Agent Adam Lee said at a news conference announcing the charges. “James Fields killed Heather Heyer in the name of hate.”
Fields, 21, of Maumee, Ohio, expressed white supremacist views on social media months before he attended the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians, U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen said.
“Fields expressed and promoted his belief that white people are superior to other races and people; 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 numbers of other racial, ethnic and religious groups he perceived to be non-white,” according to the indictment.
On the day he traveled to Charlottesville from Ohio, a family member sent him a text message urging him to be careful, according the indictment from the Department of Justice. Fields replied, “We’re not the ones who need to be careful,” and attached an image of Adolf Hitler.
While Cullen would not go into detail about how investigators gathered evidence about Fields’ motives, Cullen said social media played a huge part in the case. He said that was part of the reason the investigation has taken 10 months.
“What I would say in respect to the evidence and what we will be able to establish in court is ‘Stay tuned,’” he said.
Fields is charged with one count of a hate crime resulting in the death of Heyer; 28 counts of hate crime acts causing bodily injury and involving an attempt to kill; and one count of racially motivated violent interference with a federally protected activity, resulting in Heyer’s death.
Prosecutors are still deciding whether they will seek the death penalty, Cullen said. He added that Fields was not charged with domestic terrorism because Virginia does not have such a statute. In this case, he said, charges of hate crimes were the best fit.
According to the indictment, Fields drove his gray Dodge Challenger onto the Fourth Street crossing of the Downtown Mall. At the same time, a “racially and ethnically diverse crowd” of individuals gathered at the intersection of Fourth Street Southeast and East Water Street.
Prosecutors allege that Fields slowly drove toward the crowd, stopped and observed the protesters while idling. Many were chanting and carrying signs promoting equality and protesting against racial and other forms of discrimination. With no vehicle behind him, Fields slowly reversed to the top of the hill near the intersection of Fourth and Market streets, according to the indictment.
Fields then accelerated directly into the crowd, striking numerous individuals, killing Heyer and injuring many others, the indictment states. Fields’ car stopped only when it struck another vehicle near the intersection of Fourth and Water streets. He then quickly reversed and fled the scene, the indictment states.
Lee, the FBI special agent in charge of the Bureau’s Richmond Division, said cases involving hate crimes are made a top priority. Calling Heyer’s death a tragedy, Lee said she wasn’t there for a fight; she was there to have her voice heard.
“She was looking to lend her voice to her cause,” Lee said.
Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania said he has received continuous updates about the federal case and said it will have no impact on the city’s case.
The federal charges add to the 10 state charges of first-degree murder, malicious wounding and aggravated malicious wounding and failure to stop at the scene of the crash. Cullen said the two cases are separate, but run on parallel tracks. Fields will be placed in federal custody sometime next week, he said, and will be transported to both state and federal courts.
Fields is scheduled to go to trial in Charlottesville Circuit Court in November.
In a statement, Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said she was pleased with the federal indictment. The organization leads the Stop Hate Project, which helps community leaders, local government and law enforcement to combat hate.
“Hate crimes continue to proliferate in virtually every corner of our country,” she said. “We will continue to hold this Justice Department accountable when it comes to protecting victims of hate in this country, including those targeted at rallies, inside our schools, at the workplace and beyond.”
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, who watched the news conference, spoke about her “baby girl” and said it was a lot to take in. She also said she isn’t sure she wants the death penalty for Fields and said it wasn’t her place to make that decision.
“I don’t know how I feel about it,” Bro said. “I think it’s a tragedy all the way around. I lost my child, but he’s also so young to be so stupid, and I really hate that for him. But I didn’t make his choices; he made them.”
Since her daughter’s death, Bro said Heyer has catapulted conversations about race and activism around the world.
“In some ways, Heather is more symbolic than she is real to some people, and part of my job, I feel like, is trying to keep the focus real,” Bro said. “There’s Heather the real person and Heather the symbol, and trying to find the difference between the two is sometimes a little challenging. She’s still my baby girl.”