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Federal Probe Into Charlottesville; Sessions Says 'Justice Will Prevail'

by Phil Helsel /
Image: Charlottesville protests
Virginia State Police inspect the site where a vehicle hit protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.TASOS KATOPODIS / EPA

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The Department of Justice said Saturday it has opened a civil-rights investigation into a deadly car-ramming incident that witnesses said targeted counter-protesters at a white nationalist and alt-right rally in Virginia.

"The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. "When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated.”

A 32-year-old woman died and 19 people were injured when a car plowed into a group described by a witness as "anti-racist protesters" near the intersection of 4th and Water streets downtown, officials said. The driver fled and was located and arrested moments later, police said.

Police later identified the person who was arrested as James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Ohio, and said he is charged with second-degree murder and other counts.

Two Virginia State Police pilots were also killed when the helicopter they were in, which had been assisting law enforcement in the rally, crashed just before 5 p.m., state police said. Foul play is not suspected in the crash.

The FBI said in a statement Saturday that it, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia have opened a civil rights investigation into the car striking the crowd of people.

Sessions said the federal investigation "will have the full support of the Department of Justice."

"Justice will prevail," he said.

Related: Trump Criticized for 'Many Sides' Comment After Charlottesville Violence

A witness who filmed the car crash said he saw the vehicle build up speed before ramming the crowd. "It was very clearly intentional," Brennan Gilmore told NBC News.

The University of Virginia Health System said it was treating 19 injured people from the crash, five of whom were in critical condition. Four were in serious condition, six were fair, and four were in good condition, the health system said on Twitter Saturday.

The vehicle slammed into the crowd during a day that saw clashes between those attending a "Unite the Right" rally held in Charlottesville and counter-protesters.

The rally was originally meant as a protest over the planned removal of a statue honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. It was to be held at Emancipation Park, formerly known as Lee Park.

Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas said that at least 35 people were injured and treated by city personnel. Fourteen of those injuries occurred in "individual engagements," he said. He said no injuries were reported due to police encounters.

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