James Fields, the driver of the gray Dodge Challenger that authorities say twice plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, at an August 12 white supremacist rally, saw his criminal charges increased Thursday from murder in the second-degree to first-degree murder.
Fields, 20, faces eight other felony charges for malicious wounding, aggravated malicious wounding, and felonious assault.
The mandatory sentencing guidelines for second-degree murder in Virginia would have been between five and 40 years. Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania successfully argued for an increase in charges to first-degree murder, which carries a sentence of between 20 years and life imprisonment.
Fields was photographed and recorded on video as a participant in the so-called Unite the Right rally on August 12. White supremacist groups gathered there rioted, resulting in one dead counter protester, two Virginia state troopers killed in a helicopter crash, and dozens of serious injuries. Fields was dressed in a manner identical to other members of Vanguard America, a neo-Nazi group that advocates for a whites-only United States. Fields appeared at the rally standing in line with other members of Vanguard America holding a shield bearing their logo.
After police dispersed the white supremacist demonstrators and counter protesters, Fields drove his Dodge Challenger down a side street, despite a small barrier intended to close the street to vehicular traffic. Police say he was seen backing up the vehicle before gunning the engine and driving straight into a large crowd of protesters walking up the street. As protesters gathered around the rear of the car in an attempt to prevent the car from leaving, authorities say Fields backed the car through the crowd again at high speed. Heather Heyer, a local activist, was killed. Police in Charlottesville were told by law enforcement officials not to intervene in the violence, according to a report issued in late November.
As prosecutors on Thursday laid out their case against Fields, new information was revealed and at least one August 12 myth was laid to rest.
Video recorded from a state police helicopter was played in court, showing the Dodge Challenger from the moment of the initial crash until Fields pulled over a mile away following a low-speed pursuit by a Sheriff’s deputy. At no time did the car pull over to allow anyone to enter or exit the vehicle.
“Holy shit! Holy crap!” exclaimed the two-man crew of the helicopter on the recording as the car plowed into the crowd. “Did you see that? I got the car! I got the car!”
Hours later, both of those police officers would be dead after their aircraft crashed near Charlottesville.
Charlottesville Police Detective Steven Young took the stand as the sole witness in the hearing, describing how he was one of the first officers to reach Fields after he pulled over.
“I step out of the van and I saw a white man on the ground in handcuffs … identified as James Fields,” Young told the court. “There was what appeared to be blood and flesh on the front of the car.”
In photos shown as evidence, a pair of blue sunglasses was still hooked to the rear spoiler of the car.
Young said that when Fields was being arrested, “he said, ‘I’m sorry,’ He asked if the people were OK.”
Young has been involved in the criminal investigation into Fields. He testified that 36 victims, including the late Heather Heyer, were injured in the crash. This is an increase over the 19 victims, in addition to Heyer, that was previously reported.
Additional video entered as evidence showed that Fields backed up his vehicle much farther than had been understood before driving into the crowd. The car reversed about 100 yards before accelerating at a high speed.
Fields sat in the courtroom expressionless while scribbling notes to his attorneys as video showed the car striking pedestrians. At one point he looked away before the helicopter’s camera showed the moment of impact. He appeared to have lost weight since his arrest, has grown a beard, and was no longer wearing glasses.
Young testified that searches of Fields’ phone, computer, and electronic records did not provide evidence that he was a member of Vanguard America, nor did they discover any communication between Fields and members of Vanguard America.
Fields would not be eligible for the death penalty unless charges in the death of Heyer were increased to capital murder. A capital murder charge in Virginia requires that one of a number of aggravating circumstances applies, such as if Fields was charged with an act of terrorism.
Thursday’s hearing marked Fields’ first public appearance since his arrest within minutes of leaving the scene of the crime at the white supremacist riot on August 12. A trial date will likely be scheduled next week.