A man with neo-Nazi beliefs whose brazen assault on counterprotesters of a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year was found guilty Friday of first-degree murder.
James Alex Fields, Jr. plowed his 2010 Dodge Challenger into the crowd, killing 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer. A jury in Charlottesville deliberated for seven hours before convicting Fields, 21, a Nazi sympathizer from Maumee, Ohio.
The jury also found Fields guilty of five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, three of malicious wounding, and one hit-and-run count. In all, 35 other people were wounded in the Aug. 12, 2017 assault, which brought national attention and heightened tension between right-leaning activists and their critics.
Fields' mother, Samantha Bloom, and Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, were both in the courtroom when the verdicts were read. But both left without comment. Fields, wearing glasses and a light blue sweater, showed no emotion as the verdicts were announced.
He faces 20 years to life in prison for the murder charge. Sentencing is expected to begin Monday, when Bro and eight victims of the attack will provide testimony.
A woman who was injured in the assault but survived said the verdict has made her feel "the best I’ve been in a year-and-a-half.” Other victims embraced Heyer’s mother immediately after the verdict.
White nationalist Richard Spencer called the verdict a “miscarriage of justice" and said Fields “was treated as a terrorist from the get-go.” Spencer questioned whether Fields could get a fair trial since the case was so emotional.
Spencer popularized the term “alt-right” to describe a fringe movement loosely mixing white nationalism, anti-Semitism and other far-right extremist views. He said he doesn’t feel any personal responsibility for the violence that erupted in Charlottesville.
About a dozen civil rights activists who were outside the courthouse chanted in unison after the verdict that white nationalists “will not replace us.”
It was a revised version of slurs shouted by white-supremacist-rally participants in 2017 who yelled “Jews will not replace us.”
Charlottesville civil rights activist Tanesha Hudson said she attended the rally and saw the violence that day. She said she sees the guilty verdict as the city’s way of saying, “We will not tolerate this in our city.” She says Charlottesville residents “don’t stand for this type of hate.”
As jury selection in the trial got underway earlier this week, Fields’ attorney John Hill told a group of prospective jurors that Fields was in a panicked state during the attack and “thought he was acting in self-defense.”
Fields has also been charged with 30 federal counts of hate crimes, which could result in the death penalty. That trial has not been scheduled. He has pleaded not guilty.
Federal prosecutors described Fields as a Nazi sympathizer who has advocated violence against blacks and Jews on social media and who participated in chants promoting white supremacy and racist views during the Unite the Right rally, held to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The indictment said that after the rally was dispersed, Fields drove to where the counterprotest was taking place in downtown Charlottesville and backed up to the top of a hill.
“Fields then rapidly accelerated, ran through a stop sign and across a raised pedestrian mall, and drove directly into the crowd, striking numerous individuals, killing Heather Heyer, and injuring many others,’’ the indictment said. “Fields’ vehicle stopped only when it struck another vehicle ... He then rapidly reversed his vehicle and fled the scene.’’
After the incident, President Donald Trump inflamed racial tensions when he said “both sides” were to blame, a comment some saw as a refusal to condemn racism.
Heyer's mother has become an outspoken activist and is determined to keep her daughter's passion alive. Bro now runs the Heather Heyer Foundation, which awards scholarships to students who are passionate about social justice.
"I turned my attention to carrying forth her message," she told USA TODAY in August. "You don’t get to silence my kid and get away with it. I'm going to speak even louder."
CONTRIBUTING: Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Neo-Nazi convicted of murder in Charlottesville car assault that killed Heather Heyer