James Fields pleads not guilty to federal crimes

James Fields earlier in the day, before he plowed his car into dozens of people on Fourth Street.
Photo Eze Amos James Fields earlier in the day, before he plowed his car into dozens of people on Fourth Street. Photo Eze Amos

The man charged with 30 federal hate crimes, including the murder of Heather Heyer by ramming his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counterprotesters on August 12, gave a clipped introduction to the judge when he announced himself as James Alex Fields Jr. on July 5.

Each hate crime charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, and it’s unclear whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty.

Wearing a gray-striped jail jumpsuit with bright orange slip-on shoes and rectangular glasses, the 21-year-old Ohio man, escorted by U.S. marshals, strode slowly into the courtroom. He sat next to his attorneys with his back facing those seated in the room, and turned around twice to peer at the crowd, once waving to someone in the first row, who waved back and appeared to work with his attorneys.

While answering procedural questions in a monotone voice before his arraignment, Fields never tacked “sir” onto the end of his responses. He told the judge he has a high school diploma.

“I’ve been a security guard,” he said, when asked about past employment, and he also said he’s been receiving treatment for bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression and ADHD, which have required “several medications” such as antipsychotics and antidepressants.

His brown hair was longer on the top than the sides, and his beard was starting to grow back from what appeared to be a recent shave, as also illustrated by the sketch artist sitting in the front row of the Western District of Virginia federal courthouse.

At one point, seven uniformed marshals were present in the room with the man who some have called a domestic terrorist. At the Unite the Right rally on August 12, Fields was seen standing shoulder-to-shoulder with members of white supremacist group Vanguard America, and carrying a shield marked with their logo. The organization with neo-Nazi ideology has denied that Fields was a member.

After he drove his Challenger into a group of counterprotesters on Fourth Street, sending bodies flying and ramming his vehicle into the back of a Toyota Camry, Fields fled the scene. Police stopped his car on a nearby street and arrested him, and it wasn’t long before classmates and teachers at his former high school in Ohio started speaking to national media outlets such as Vice and ABC News about the kid who drew swastikas and idolized Adolf Hitler, and whom they dubbed “the Nazi of the school.” Fields also previously hit his mother and locked her in a room when she asked him to stop playing video games, and on another occasion, threatened his mother with a 12-inch knife, according to police reports.

As Fields pleaded not guilty to the 30 hate crimes, an unidentified person on the other side of the room—which was packed with victims of the car attack and Heyer’s friends and family—let out a loud, exasperated, “pffffft.”

Federal public defender Lisa Loresh and Denise Lunsford, who also represent Fields in his first-degree murder trial on state charges, will defend him in the federal trial.

Both offered no comment outside of the courthouse.

“Sad situation, man,” said car attack victim Marcus Martin as he was leaving the courtroom with Heyer’s parents, Susan Bro and Mark Heyer. “Sad, sad, sad.”

Updated Friday, July 6 at 4:00pm with additional information.

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