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A jury found James Alex Fields Jr. guilty of first degree murder, as well as aggravated malicious wounding, hit and run, and leaving the scene of an accident, for driving his car into a sea of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017. The incident left Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and civil rights activist, dead, and around three dozen others injured.
During the evening in question, white nationalists had gathered for a "Unite the Right" rally to protest the removal of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's statue on the University of Virginia campus. Many local residents had petitioned the city to prohibit this rally, based on the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, but the request was denied.
However, due to clashes between rally attendees and counterprotesters, the event was shut down before it even began. Fields, who lives in Ohio with his mother, had driven all night to attend the rally and was agitated by the counterprotesters. According to video footage shown during the trial, as counterprotesters marched through Charlottesville singing and laughing, Fields stopped his car, backed up, and then accelerated into the crowd of counterprotesters. Heyer was tossed on to Fields' windshield and later died.
First degree murder requires elements of willfulness, premeditation, and deliberation. Senior Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Nina-Alice Antony told the jury of a text message sent by Fields to his mother the day before the rally, which contained an image of Adolf Hitler, and the words, "we're not the one (sic) who need to be careful." Fields had also made an Instagram post three months before the rally, with an image of a car plowing into a crowd of people labeled as "protesters," their bodies being tossed into the air.
The defense unsuccessfully raised a self-defense argument, claiming Fields was scared for his life, and trying to flee the counterprotesters. Defense attorney Denise Lunsford told jurors Fields had expressed remorse when arrested, sobbing uncontrollably, and saying to police, "I'm sorry I didn't want to hurt anyone. I thought they were attacking me." But the jury didn't agree with Lunsford.
Sentencing for Fields begins Monday. He faces twenty years to life. In addition to these charges, he also faces federal hate crime charges. If found guilty, he could be eligible for the death penalty.
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