Life plus 419 years: Judge goes with jury recommendation in Fields case

Susan Bro gets a hug from Katrina Turner outside the courthouse before the sentencing of the man who killed Bro's daughter. 
Eze Amos Susan Bro gets a hug from Katrina Turner outside the courthouse before the sentencing of the man who killed Bro’s daughter. Eze Amos

After a four-hour hearing July 15 in the cramped room temporarily housing Charlottesville Circuit Court, a judge handed down the same sentence recommended by the jury that found James Alex Fields, Jr. guilty of murder and maiming last December: life plus 419 years in prison.

Self-proclaimed Hitler fanboy Fields was convicted of killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens when he drove down Fourth Street into a crowd of counterprotesters August 12, 2017.

Around 50 people, mostly victims and reporters, crammed into the tiny courtroom, where the air conditioning had to be turned off in order to hear. Some of the people he’d injured directly addressed Fields, whose fash haircut had grown out since December and who sported a scruffy beard.

James Fields faces his accusers in court. Sketch by Hawes Spencer

“Hello, scum,” said Star Peterson, the first of seven victims to testify. Judge Rick Moore asked her to address him rather than Fields, whom she called a “terrible waste of flesh” and said that while he was in prison, she’d be fighting the racism and hate for which Fields stood.

Marcus Martin, immortalized flying over Fields’ car in Daily Progress photographer Ryan Kelly’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, said that on the way to court, he’d seen a car like the Dodge Challenger Fields drove. “It all came back.”

Martin said he still suffers from rage and anger. He can’t ride in the passenger side of a car.  “Fucking coward,” he said to Fields. Martin was there when his friend Heyer died. “I try to understand. There’s no understanding,” he said. 

“I want you to look at me,” he said to Fields. “You don’t deserve to be on earth.” Martin said he’d talked to Fields’ mother. “To put your hands on your mother. You ain’t shit.”

Marcus Martin finally got to confront James Fields in court today. staff photo

April Muniz testified that while she wasn’t struck by Fields, “I must live with what he did that day, with what I saw that day.” In the two years since the attack, she said she’d experienced the moment of impact over and over, and the “sound of metal crushing bone.” She was unable to work and her career trajectory “was forever altered by your actions,” she said to Fields.

Muniz said she now has a fear of joy, because before Fields slammed into the crowd on Fourth Street, the group was happy that the Unite the Right rally had dissipated. In “that split second, there was a transition of joy to pain,” from which she’s still recovering. She continues to have PTSD. “I will not ever have closure,” she said. “Shame on you, James Fields.”

Wren Steele said she was thrown on the hood of one of the parked cars on Fourth “so fast I did not feel my legs break, my hand break.” She said she’ll always have pins in her legs, but in the past two years, her “biggest emotional trauma is that [Fields] was not charged as a terrorist.”

Nina-Alice Antony prosecuted the case, and said, “Today is the culmination of a case the likes of which most of us hope to never see again in our lifetimes and in the lifetimes after that. All of us have been marked by this.”

She urged Moore to impose the sentence the jury recommended. “That event shook our community and I think it shook our nation to the core.” And she said Fields’ mental health issues should not be a factor in sentencing because many people suffer from such issues. “Mental health does not cause you to do what Mr. Fields did August 12.”

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina Antony, who led the prosecution, with Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania. staff photo

Defense attorney Denise Lunsford said it’s not the role of the court to give victims closure, and that her client should be sentenced as if his crime had occurred “on any other day of the week.” She also asked the judge to consider that Fields has already been sentenced to two life sentences in federal court.

Judge Moore presided over the two-week trial, and this was his first opportunity to weigh in on Fields’ actions. He noted the shock, terror, pain, fear, anger, weeping, PTSD, and trauma he’d heard about from the victims. “That is a starting point for the court.”

A video of Fields driving down Fourth Street, sitting in the middle of the mall, and backing up, only to accelerate forward into the crowd was admitted as evidence in the trial. “This is one of the most chilling and disturbing videos I’ve ever seen in my life,” said the judge.

And he also addressed what has been a thread in white supremacist narratives of the event. “I want to say for the record, he was not being threatened or attacked. No one was around his vehicle.” Fields could have backed up and left, said Moore. 

In Moore’s 39-year legal career, he said, “I’ve never been in a case where so many were so seriously injured by one person.”

Witnesses who had gone with Fields to Dachau in high school testified that he said, “This is where the magic happened.” Moore, too, went to Dachau as a teenager, and found it “one of the most shocking, sobering places.”  He repeated what appears on a memorial there: “Never again.”

Moore said he found clear evidence of murder and that he believed in respecting a jury’s verdict. He gave Fields a life sentence for the murder of Heyer, 70 years for each of five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, 20 years for each of three counts of malicious wounding, and nine years for felony hit and run. And he added a $480,000 fine. 

Afterward, Heyer’s mother Susan Bro said she felt relieved by the sentence. “I want it very clear the United States and Virginia are not tolerating this.”

She said she did not see any remorse from Fields. “I’m not sure with his mental illness he’s capable of remorse.” But she noted that she also kept “a game face” in court and he may have been doing the same.

Several survivors spoke outside the courthouse. “We did not stop racism today,” said Peterson. She said Charlottesiville has some “deep soul searching to do” about its racist past and current racial inequity. “It’s time to get to work.”

And activist Matthew Christensen noted that the Virginia Victims Fund has paid very little to August 12 victims, and urged people to call for the state to pay up.

 

Correction July 16: The $480,000 fine was misstated in the original story.

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