Racism and other prejudice
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
People fly into the air as a vehicle is driven by neo-Nazi James Fields into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017. Photo: AP

US neo-Nazi James Fields avoids possible death penalty by pleading guilty to hate crimes for ploughing car into Charlottesville protesters

  • The 2017 attack at the infamous Unite the Right white supremacist rally killed Heather Heyer and injured dozens
  • US Attorney General William Barr said the recent New Zealand massacre showed there must be ‘zero tolerance’ for violence rooted in bigotry

An avowed neo-Nazi who killed one woman and injured 35 others when he ploughed his car into a group of counterprotesters at an infamous rally in Charlottesville pleaded guilty to hate crimes in federal court Wednesday.

James Fields, 25, of Ohio was convicted on 29 of 30 federal counts as part of a deal with prosecutors, who agreed to not seek the death penalty in a case that has come to symbolise the violent public resurgence of white supremacy across the country.

A counter-protester holds a photo of Heather Heyer at a “Free Speech” rally organised by conservative activists, in Boston on August 19, 2017. Photo: AP

The deal was approved by US Attorney General William Barr, prosecutors said.

Fields was convicted in state court and sentenced to life in prison in December for first-degree murder and other counts for killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring dozens at the chaotic Unite the Right rally on August 12, 2017.

Sentencing for the federal crimes was scheduled for July 3. Fields faces another life sentence.

“In the aftermath of the mass murder in New Zealand earlier this month, we are reminded that a diverse and pluralistic community such as ours can have zero tolerance for violence on the basis of race, religion, or association with people of other races and religions,” Barr said in a statement released by the Department of Justice.

Fields entered the courtroom Wednesday in a grey and white jumpsuit and handcuffs. Pleading guilty to hate crimes marks a dramatic shift for Fields, whose lawyers argued during his trial in state court that he sped toward the crowd out of fear for his safety and confusion. They said he immediately regretted his actions.

Jeff Sessions, US attorney general at the time, said in June that it was important to send an unambiguous message that hateful violence would not be tolerated, when the 30-count federal indictment was announced against Fields.

“At the Department of Justice, we remain resolute that hateful ideologies will not have the last word and that their adherents will not get away with violent crimes against those they target,” Sessions said in a statement then.

Fields travelled more than 800km (500 miles) from his home to attend the Charlottesville rally, which generated national media attention after people carrying Nazi flags and shouting racial epithets clashed violently with counterprotesters. Police eventually dispersed the groups.

A short time later, Fields was seen driving his grey Dodge Charger up to a group of counterprotesters on a narrow street. He slowly backed up and then accelerated down a hill, driving directly into the group.

This undated file photo provided by the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail shows James Fields, who was convicted in a deadly car attack on a crowd of counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in Virginia. Photo: AP

Video, which was played at Fields’ trial, shows protesters tumbling and screaming as the car slams into the group. Fields then reverses quickly, hitting and dragging others. Someone repeatedly says: “Oh god, Oh god.”

Heyer was killed, and others were seriously wounded. One woman who limped to the stand at Fields’ state trial testified she had five surgeries and was expecting a sixth. Another described a broken pelvis and a third how he pushed his fiancé out of the way before he was struck by Fields’ car.

James Fields (centre, with shield) is seen attending the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, hours before his arrest on August 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters

US President Donald Trump’s comments in the wake of the violence that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the Charlottesville rally sparked intense criticism and touched off a conversation about race and far-right groups.

Additional reporting by Reuters