(AP) A man who drove his car into counterprotesters at a 2017 white nationalist rally in Virginia was convicted Friday of first-degree murder, a verdict that local civil rights activists hope will help heal a community still scarred by the violence and the racial tensions it inflamed nationwide.
A state jury rejected defense arguments that James Alex Fields Jr. acted in self-defense during a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. Jurors also convicted Fields of eight other charges, including aggravated malicious wounding and hit and run.
Fields, 21, drove to Virginia from his home in Maumee, Ohio, to support the white nationalists. As a large group of counterprotesters marched through Charlottesville singing and laughing, he stopped his car, backed up, then sped into the crowd, according to testimony from witnesses and video surveillance shown to jurors.
Prosecutors told the jury that Fields was angry after witnessing violent clashes between the two sides earlier in the day. The violence prompted police to shut down the rally before it even officially began.
Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and civil rights activist, was killed, and nearly three dozen others were injured. The trial featured emotional testimony from survivors who described devastating injuries and long, complicated recoveries.
After the verdict was read in court, some of those who were injured embraced Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro. She left the courthouse without commenting. Fields’ mother, Samantha Bloom, who is disabled, left the courthouse in a wheelchair without commenting.
But Fields’ lawyers told the jury that he drove into the crowd on the day of the rally because he feared for his life and was “scared to death” by earlier violence he had witnessed. A video of Fields being interrogated after the crash showed him sobbing and hyperventilating after he was told a woman had died and others were seriously injured.
Wednesday Bowie, who was struck by Fields’ car and suffered a broken pelvis and other injuries, said she felt gratified by the guilty verdict.
“This is the best I’ve been in a year and a half,” Bowie said.
The jury will reconvene Monday to recommend a sentence. Under Virginia law, jurors can recommend from 20 years to life in prison on the first-degree murder charge.
Fields is eligible for the death penalty if convicted of separate federal hate crime charges. No trial has been scheduled yet.