Many thought James Fields’ mental health would be used as a defense during his murder trial– but surprisingly, it never came up.
Instead, jurors learned about his troubled state of mind during the December 10 sentencing hearing, after he’d been found guilty of murdering Heather Heyer and injuring many others at the Unite the Right rally.
Attorney Denise Lunsford called on a UVA psychologist who evaluated Fields, and who noted the now-convicted murderer’s lifetime of “explosive” and “volatile” behavior.
UVA’s Daniel Murrie, an expert in forensic psychology, spent approximately 14 hours with Fields over a series of five visits from October 2017 to May 2018, he said. He also interviewed Fields’ mother and reviewed “thousands of pages” of records from Fields’ previous doctors and schools.
And he learned that to family members, Fields appeared “unusual” and as having a “difficult temperament” since before he could even talk. As a baby, he often had outbursts of “volatile, unexplainable crying,” said Murrie, and similar outbursts would continue for the rest of his life.
According to school records, Fields would often exhibit these behaviors when a teacher singled him out by calling on him to answer a question or directing him to the chalkboard. His response would be to scream, run out of the room, or hide under a table.
The psychologist noted a couple of specific examples, including a time when a teacher found Fields making problematic drawings in his textbook and asked him to leave the classroom.
Fields then reportedly gave his teacher the middle finger, ran into another room, and announced, “I’m going to kill her. I’m going to butcher her up. She doesn’t deserve to live.”
These behaviors were likely caused by bipolar disorder, Murrie said. At age six, a bipolar specialist said Fields showed all signs of the illness, though formal diagnoses very rarely happen at such a young age.
By the time Fields was 10, he was hospitalized twice in a “mental hospital for children,” and four years later, he was sent to a “residential treatment facility” for many months. He’s also been assigned diagnoses for schizoid personality disorder and Asperger’s, according to Murrie.
The bipolar disorder could have been genetic. Murrie described a family history in which Fields’ father and both grandfathers had the same illness.
The psychologist also said Fields had a “gruesome” understanding from a young age of how his father was killed in a car accident before he was born. And he was also aware that his grandfather killed his grandmother and then himself.
Fields decided to join the military after high school, which required him to go off all medication. After failing a physical fitness test at boot camp, Fields moved back home with his mother, but never started taking his pills again.
Before coming to Charlottesville on August 12, 2017, Fields had just moved into his own apartment, partially because his mother feared for her safety while living with him, Murrie said. But according to his “sanity evaluation,” Fields was considered sane at the time of the incident.
After being found guilty of 10 related charges, Fields faces a minimum of 135 years in prison.
A few of his victims who testified against him during the trial read impact statements for the jury to consider when imposing a statement, including Star Peterson, Lisa Q., and Al Bowie.
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, told them, “I don’t hate Mr. Fields. I’m leaving him in the hands of justice.”