A federal investigation that has simmered for ten months has resulted in 30 criminal indictments against James Fields for driving a Dodge Challenger into a crowd of demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, following a white supremacist rally in which Fields participated.
Twenty-nine of those indictments are for alleged federal hate crime acts, including the killing of activist Heather Heyer. Federal law allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty against Fields, though they have not yet declared intent to do so. The federal charges are being brought in addition to indictments on Virginia state charges.
“Heather Heyer’s death is a tragedy,” FBI Special Agent Adam Lee said Wednesday at a press conference in Charlottesville. “She wasn’t looking for a fight. She was looking to lend her voice to her cause. Peaceful protest is every American’s birthright.”
Defense attorneys will contest Fields’ motive for accelerating into the crowd of counter protesters, according to a source familiar with the case against Fields. They will say Fields accelerated his vehicle not out of malice, but because he feared a man threatening him with a gun. The hope, according to the source, is to create enough doubt that Fields gets second degree murder or manslaughter, rather than first degree murder.
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At a previous hearing for Fields’ state-level charges, a law enforcement witness indicated that investigators had gained access to Fields’ phone and computer and were able to search the devices for evidence. The FBI confirmed that Fields’ digital footprint has been a part of the investigation and that some of that evidence may be presented in a federal trial.
“The social media aspect was a huge part of this investigation, which is mainly why this investigation took ten months,” said U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen.
Fields has been jailed without bond since his arrest on August 12 following a low-speed police chase. He will likely be tried on those state charges–including a count of first degree murder–before any federal trial, according to the source familiar with the case against Fields.
The prosecution team includes Department Of Justice attorney Stephen Curran, a specialist in prosecuting white supremacists.
Heather Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, attended the press conference. She was uncertain when asked whether she would like to see the death penalty imposed on Fields.
“It’s kind of early for me to think about that,” Bro told reporters. “I haven’t read the full indictment yet …. I’m going to leave that to the process to decide. It’s not my place to decide that.”
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement that the group was “pleased with the federal indictment” against Fields. She said the Trump administration must do more to “fully confront the growing hate crime crisis we are seeing across the country.”
“Silence on the part of Attorney General Jeff Sessions was simply not an option as the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally stands as one of the most violent hate rallies to be carried out in this country in recent time,” Clarke said.
The administration in 2017 ended funding for Life After Hate, a Chicago-based group that helps people leave white supremacist organizations. Life After Hate had “seen a 20-fold increase in requests for help” before the Trump administration ended its $400,000 federal grant, Quartz reported.
President Trump in response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville equivocated in condemning the violence perpetrated by neo-Nazi groups, saying, “You have some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.”