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Crime

James Fields, neo-Nazi in Charlottesville car rampage, pleads not guilty to murder charge

  • Fields, 21, also faces hit-and-run charges as well as eight counts of causing serious injury
  • Jury selection is expected to take about two days
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 3:41am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 4:45am

An American neo-Nazi pled not guilty to a murder charge at the start of his trial on Monday for allegedly ramming his car into counter-protesters at a 2017 white supremacist rally that made the city of Charlottesville a byword for rising racial tensions under US President Donald Trump.

James Fields, 21, also pled not guilty to hit-and-run charges and eight counts of causing serious injury to others struck by the black Dodge Challenger he is accused of driving at the “Unite the Right” protest on August 12, 2017.

The rampage in Virginia resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, 32, and highlighted the growing audacity of the far right under Trump, whose rhetoric and policies are blamed by critics for a spike in racist and anti-Semitic violence.

Trump drew broad criticism after the attack when he spoke of “blame on both sides,” and appeared to establish a moral equivalence between the white supremacists who came to the liberal university city to protest the removal of a Confederate statue, and those who opposed them.

Jury selection began on Monday morning and is expected to last around two days, with the full trial expected to take up to three weeks.

The precincts of the courthouse were quiet but police had put up plastic barriers around the building, anticipating crowds later in the week, and four armed officers stood guard.

If convicted of first-degree murder Fields faces 20 years to life in prison. His legal team earlier failed to shift the trial away from Charlottesville, where they argued it would be impossible to impanel an unbiased jury.

Nazi fan ‘who drove into crowd at Virginia rally’ faces hate-crime charges

Fields has been separately charged with federal hate crimes, including one offence that carries the death penalty. A trial date has not yet been set for that case, and prosecutors have not indicated whether they will seek the maximum punishment.

The Unite the Right rally was organised by white nationalists Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee, the top general of the pro-slavery Confederacy during the 1861-1865 US Civil War.

The protest saw hundreds of neo-Nazi sympathisers, accompanied by rifle-carrying men, yelling white nationalist slogans and wielding flaming torches in scenes eerily reminiscent of racist rallies held in the US South before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

On the second day of demonstrations, August 12, fighting broke out between neo-Nazi supporters and anti-fascists from a black-clad group called Antifa.

The violence culminated with Fields’ alleged attack.

According to his federal hate crimes indictment, Fields had multiple social media accounts where he expressed support for white supremacism as well as the racial policies of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, and advocated violence against black people and Jews.

The Toledo Blade, a local newspaper from Ohio where Fields lived, reported he enlisted in the army in August 2015, but was discharged in December “due to a failure to meet training standards”.

Charlottesville anti-racism rally turns into protest against police

The spectre of violence by right-wing extremists was once more in the spotlight last month when Cesar Sayoc, a Trump mega-fan, sent 15 pipe bombs to the president’s political opponents and media critics.

On October 27, Robert Bowers was accused of slaughtering 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, shouting “All Jews must die” before opening fire with his arsenal of guns in the worst anti-Semitic attack in modern US history.