Plea denied: James Fields gets life behind bars for car attack

U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen addresses the media after James Fields was sentenced to life in prison. (Photo: Eze Amos) U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen addresses the media after James Fields was sentenced to life in prison. (Photo: Eze Amos)

James Alex Fields Jr. sat before the judge, his thick, black hair grown just long enough to touch the collar of his black-and-white striped jumpsuit. The 22-year-old wore glasses, and spent most of Friday morning and early afternoon staring at the wall in front of him as the victims who were harmed when he plowed into a group of counterprotesters in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017, spoke about the trauma they endured and advocated for him to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Chief U.S. Western District of Virginia Judge Michael Urbanski heard the statements of 23 victims, testimony from two FBI special agents and the prosecution’s evidence that examined Fields’ history as an admitted neo-Nazi before handing down 29 life sentences in the final ruling of the federal case.

“This sentencing sends a message that terrorism and hatred-inspired violence have no place in our community,” FBI Special Agent in Charge David Archey said at a press conference following the sentencing.

Fields’ legal counsel asked Urbanski last week to consider a sentence of “less than life” due to his age, troubled childhood, and history of mental illness. However, Urbanski determined the crime wasn’t an impulse decision and the punishment was “sufficient but not greater than necessary.”

“I would like to apologize for my actions on August 12 and for the hurt and loss I have caused,” Fields said in a flat tone to the judge before receiving the sentence. “I would like to apologize for taking it to trial in state and for the wounds reopened by doing so. I apologize to my mother for putting her through this. Every day I think about how this could have gone different and how I regret my actions. I’m sorry.”

Victims of the attack testified, some for the first time. Many of those who came forward and spoke fought back tears as they detailed the events that happened that day and how they’ve attempted to recover physically, mentally and emotionally since. 

Mark Heyer, the father of murdered 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer, stepped forward and addressed Fields directly after a prepared statement was read for him.

“I want to publicly say that I forgive you,” Heyer said as he wiped tears from his eyes. He said that he hoped Fields would find faith and lead a better life moving forward.

Those in attendance saw footage of the attack both from a Virginia State Police helicopter and videos obtained from bystanders’ phones and cameras. The prosecutors showed photos taken the day after the attack of Fields’ bedroom, which was outfitted with a Nazi Iron Cross flag and a framed photo of Adolf Hitler beside his bed. They also presented social media posts from the months leading up to the protest that depicted minorities and members of the Jewish community. One of those posts was a meme of a car hitting a crowd of protesters with the caption, “You have the right to protest but I’m late for work.”

A recorded prison phone call between Fields and his mother four months after the rally was also played for the courtroom. In an expletive-filled rant, Fields referred to Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, as “the enemy” and “a communist.” On his way to the August protest from Ohio, Fields texted his mother a picture of Hitler accompanied by a message that read, “We are not the ones who have to be careful.”

Finally, testimony from Fields’ former classmates showed that his history of outspoken racist views dated back to his high school years, including a trip to a German concentration camp in which Fields remarked, “This is where the magic happened,” and “It’s almost like you can still hear them screaming.”

“It’s my hope that from a law enforcement standpoint, members of this particular community can reflect that there are some good guys out there in the FBI, in the Virginia State Police and in the Charlottesville Police Department who care about these cases, who worked tirelessly to bring this guy to justice and are committed to doing the right thing,” U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said at the press conference. Police were widely criticized for their handling of the Unite the Right rally.

Fields will also be responsible for $100 fines for each of the 29 counts and must pay restitution to the victims, an amount that’ll be determined over the next 90 days. Urbanski recommended that Fields’ life sentence run concurrent to the state’s decision, which will be handed down at Charlottesville Circuit Court on July 15. Jurors at that trial recommended life in prison plus 419 years.

Caroline Eastham contributed to this report.