The driver who killed one woman and injured 35 others after ramming his car into protesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 has pled guilty to federal hate crime charges, according to new reporting from The Washington Post.
James Alex Fields Jr. had previously pled not guilty, but changed to a guilty plea at a federal court appearance on Wednesday. He was convicted on 29 of 30 counts in return for prosecutors agreeing not to seek the death penalty during sentencing. The deal was approved by Attorney General William Barr, the Post reported.
Fields had already been convicted last December in state court on charges of first degree murder (among others) after killing of Heather D. Heyer and injuring over 30 at Charlottesville’s Unite The Right rally. Heyer and the other victims were protesting the rally, which advocated white supremacist ideals, when Fields drove his car through the crowd. The state jury recommended life in prison plus 419 years as punishment, but Fields could still have received the death penalty had he not accepted the deal in federal court.
The Post also noted how Fields’ guilty plea to hate crimes charges stands in stark contrast to his state trial, where his defense attorneys argued that he drove into the crowd out of confusion and fear for his own safety, and that he regretted his actions immediately after the attack.
BREAKING: Man pleads guilty to federal hate crime charges in deadly car attack at white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. https://t.co/oE8W7D3zB5— The Associated Press (@AP) March 27, 2019
According to NBC News, the 30th charge against Fields was dropped as part of the deal for the potential death sentence it carried. It accused Fields of, per NBC, “racially motivated violent interference with a federally protected activity” under the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (the protesters that Fields drove through were on public streets and sidewalks). If convicted, Fields would have been subject to death.
Fields has been ordered to return to federal court on July 3 for his sentencing hearing. His state sentencing will be formally determined by a judge on July 15.
Attorney General Barr issued a statement (per NBC News) condemning the attack as an “act of domestic terrorism.” He also connected Fields’ crimes with the rise in hate and violent attacks around the globe.
“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.”