White nationalist James Alex Fields Jr. on Tuesday was sentenced to life in prison, plus 419 years, after being convicted of murdering anti-racism protester Heather Heyer during the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.
Fields, a 21-year-old Ohio native, received his life sentence just days after being convicted of first-degree murder for the vehicular rampage, which killed Heyer, 32, and injured dozens of other people protesting against the white-nationalist rally.
In addition to his prison sentence, Fields also faces half a million dollars in fines related to the attack, including a $100,000 fine for first-degree murder.
“Her death was an explosion to the world,” Heyer’s mother Susan Bro said in a victim impact statement while confronting her daughter’s killer in court for the first time. “We are forever scarred by pain.”
In total, Fields was convicted Friday on ten charges, including five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, three counts of malicious wounding, and one count of failing to stop at an accident involving a death. Six of those counts had a maximum sentence of life in prison.
"Please know that the world is not a safe place with Fields in it," Wednesday Bowie, who was also hit by Fields’ car, told the jury in her statement. News of the white nationalist’s guilty verdict, she confessed, was “the best [she’s] felt in a year in a half.”
The 12-person jury that convicted Fields heard more evidence and witness testimony on Monday from both sides before recommending the sentence to Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard E. Moore, who made the final call.
Fields’ prison sentence comes after a highly anticipated two-week trial in Charlottesville. Prosecutors largely focused on the white supremacist’s intent to cause physical harm after a day of attending the racist “Unite the Right” rally, in which hundreds of alt-right, white-nationalist, and neo-Nazi activists carrying tiki torches gathered to protect a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Bro, one of the four women to spoke to the jury before the sentencing, also detailed her daughter’s fatal injuries, including a severed aorta and lacerations that left skin and blood on Fields' windshield. Within minutes of being struck, she said, her daughter bled out internally on the street.
“Heather was full of love, full of justice, and full of fairness. Mr. Fields tried to silence her, but I refuse to allow that,” Bro said through tears, according to reporters present at the hearing. She later added that she does not hate Fields and is putting his fate “in the hands of justice.”
“My family has been to therapy as the darkness has tried to swallow us whole,” she added. “We are survivors, but we’re much sadder survivors.”
Jeanne Peterson, one of the surviving victims who also gave a statement, told the jury her life has been “a living nightmare” since the attack, with devastating effects on her 7-year-old son.
“My son doesn’t want to go out in public with me because he’s scared. He asks me, ‘What if there’s another bad guy?’” Peterson, who was friends with Heyer, said. “I can’t answer why someone would do this on purpose.”
Peterson also described how she laid on the road with her head split open after the attack, not knowing if she would be paralyzed. Over the last 15 months, she explained, she has undergone intense physical therapy after breaking her spine, hip, and both legs.
“On my best days, I have 20 percent of the energy I did before the attack,” Peterson reportedly said, adding that she has been unable to return to work.
Fields’ defense attorneys argued that the white-nationalist activist, who brought a homemade shield to the rally, was acting out of self-defense when he plowed his gray 2010 Dodge Challenger through the crowd on Aug. 12.
The defense team noted that Fields had been diagnosed with and was receiving treatment for ADHD, anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder; and claimed he was afraid for his life after witnessing earlier violence break out between the white nationalists and counter-protesters. Ultimately, his lawyers said, Fields reacted without thinking of the consequences.
“[James’] mental health history is not to offer an excuse for his actions, but rather an explanation and to provide context,” defense attorney Denise Lunsford said.
During the sentencing phase on Monday, the defense team only called Dr. Daniel Murrie, a forensic psychology expert, who testified about Fields’ lifelong history of severe mental illness. Murrie performed a court-appointed mental health evaluation of Fields after the attack, and described for the jury a traumatized, “isolated” man who spent his whole life battling a slew of mental-health disorders, including schizoid personality disorder.
Despite being diagnosed at the age of six and having a history of angry and violent outbursts, Murrie explained, Fields was not found to be legally insane.
“In order to meet the legal definition of insanity the individual has to not understand the nature of what they’re doing,” Murrie said. “That being said, I do not think he arrived to the rally in good mental health.”
Federal prosecutors, on the other hand, described Fields’ background as a neo-Nazi sympathizer who previously advocated on social media for violence against blacks and Jews, and participated in hateful white-supremacist chants during the Charlottesville rally.
“His intent was not to kill Heyer specifically, but to kill any member of the group,” prosecutor Nina-Alice Antony argued in her closing arguments last week, pointing to video showing Fields idling at an intersection before backing up “slowly” and then plowing into the crowd. “He gets toward that group and he goes for them. What intent could he have other than to harm or kill?”
While Field’s prison sentence will likely prevent the 21-year-old from ever seeing the world outside his prison, this was only the first of two trials he faced.
The next one, regarding a 30-count hate crime indictment brought against him by the Department of Justice, does not yet have a start date.
Judge Moore will formally sentence James Fields on March 29th, and while he can not impose a longer punishment, he can reduce the jury's recommended sentence.