World

Neo-Nazi sentenced to life without parole for Charlottesville hate crimes

A federal judge imposed a life sentence on the self-described neo-Nazi who killed Heather Heyer by crashing his car into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., after a white supremacist rally, saying release would be "too great a risk."

Killer of Heather Heyer at rally will be sentenced for murder in separate case

James Alex Fields Jr., is seen on Aug. 12, 2017 during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. He was prosecuted at the federal level for hate crimes and at the state level for Heather Heyer's homicide. (Eze Amos/Reuters)

A U.S. federal judge imposed a life sentence on the self-described neo-Nazi who killed Heather Heyer by crashing his car into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., after a white supremacist rally, saying release on parole would be "too great a risk."

The 22-year-old neo-Nazi, James Fields of Maumee, Ohio, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He had sought a lesser sentence, apologizing after the court viewed video of him plowing his car into a crowd after the Aug. 12, 2017 rally, called Unite the Right. Nineteen people were also injured in the deliberate act.

U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski was unmoved by his plea, saying he had to avert his eyes while the court viewed graphic video of the attack that showed bodies flying as Fields crashed into them.

"Just watching them is terrifying," Urbanski said. "The release of the defendant into a free society is too great a risk."

The violence shook the college town at the end of two days of rallies by avowed white nationalists, who marched first with torches and later with medieval-style shields.

U.S. President Donald Trump was criticized from the left and right for initially saying there were "fine people on both sides" of the dispute between neo-Nazis and their opponents at the rally. 

Trump's Justice Department said after Friday's sentence that prosecuting hate crimes and acts of domestic terrorism is a "top priority."

"Hatred and bigotry have no place in our nation. Violent actions inspired by such warped thinking are a disgrace to our people and our values, and the Department of Justice will not tolerate such depraved acts," said assistant attorney general Eric Dreiband.

Before the sentence was handed down, Heyer's parents recounted the pain of losing their daughter.

"It was an incident I will never fully recover from," said Mark Heyer, her father.

Her mother, Susan Bro, described herself as "deeply wounded" and recounted crying uncontrollably at times.

Fields also found guilty of murder

Fields already faces life in prison at his state court sentencing next month after being found guilty by a jury of murdering Heyer and wounding others.

Ahead of Friday's sentencing hearing, prosecutors noted he had long espoused violent beliefs. Less than a month before the attack he posted an image on Instagram showing a car plowing through a crowd of people captioned: "You have the right to protest but I'm late for work."

Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, testifies in May at a Capitol Hill hearing on white supremacy. At the sentencing hearing Friday, she described herself as 'deeply wounded.' (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Even after the attack, Fields remained unrepentant, prosecutors said, noting that in a Dec. 7, 2017, phone call from jail with his mother, he blasted Bro for her activism after the attack.

"She is a communist. An anti-white liberal," Fields said, according to court papers filed by prosecutors. He rejected his mother's plea to consider that the woman had "lost her daughter," replying, "She's the enemy."

Fields pleaded guilty to the federal hate crime charges in March under a deal with prosecutors who agreed not to seek the death penalty.

Fields was photographed hours before the attack carrying a shield with the emblem of a far-right hate group. He has identified himself as a neo-Nazi.

Fields' attorneys suggested he felt intimidated and acted to protect himself. They asked a judge to sentence him to less than life in prison, without specifying a term, seeking mercy citing his relative youth and history of mental health diagnoses.

now