IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Driver in deadly car attack at Charlottesville white nationalist rally pleads guilty to federal hate crimes

James Alex Fields was at the Unite the Right rally when he killed anti-racism activist Heather Heyer, 32.
Image: James Alex Fields Jr.
James Alex Fields Jr. at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, 2017.Eze Amos / Reuters file

The man convicted of murder in the deadly car attack on counterprotesters at the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges Wednesday in order to dodge a possible death penalty.

James Alex Fields Jr., 21, from Maumee, Ohio, pleaded guilty to 29 of 30 charges against him. The 30th charge, which included a possible death sentence, was dropped. He's been ordered to return to court on July 3 to be sentenced.

The single charge in Count 30 was brought under a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. It had accused Fields of racially motivated violent interference with a federally protected activity — counterprotesters using the public streets and sidewalks of Charlottesville — and carried a possible death penalty.

Fields was convicted in state court in December for the death of anti-racism activist Heather Heyer, 32, and for injuring dozens more during the infamous Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12, 2017.

Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, told reporters after the hearing that she didn't oppose the deal that spared her daughter's killer.

"There's no point in killing him," she said. "It would not bring back Heather."

U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia Thomas Cullen said his prosecutors kept victims and their families regularly updated on plea-bargain talks — and that he needed ultimate approval from Attorney General William Barr to finalize his deal with Fields.

“Attorney General Barr sent me a letter on Friday authorizing and directing me not to seek the death penalty pursuant to the plea agreement," Cullen told reporters.

"Given all the facts and circumstances, life imprisonment, or the potential of life imprisonment, was an acceptable result. We also believe it vindicates the victims on Fourth and Water Street."

Barr said of Fields' actions that "hate crimes are also acts of domestic terrorism." The nation's top prosecutor cited the recent mosque massacre in New Zealand that left 50 dead in saying the nation must have zero tolerance for racial and religious bias.

“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,” according to Barr.

Before Wednesday in this separate federal prosecution, Fields had pleaded not guilty to 30 hate crime charges — including the one that carried a possible death sentence.

Cullen said he hopes this courtroom deal will spare survivors of reliving that day.

"We talked to them (survivors of the deadly attack) at every step along the way," Cullen told reporters. "Any time that you can save victims from having to go through a trial a second time … you recognize the benefit of a life sentence."

Hundreds of white nationalists converged on Charlottesville just before the start of the fall term to protest to the city's planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

About 30 more people were hurt in Fields' car attack.

Jurors in his state case found him guilty of murder and recommended he be sentenced to life in prison, plus 419 years. Sentencing in that case is scheduled for July 15.

President Donald Trump blamed the violence at the rally on "both sides" and critics of his viewed that as a refusal to condemn racism.