CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Sixteen months after swastika-toting white supremacists swarmed the streets of Charlottesville, one of the demonstrators was convicted of first-degree murder Friday by a jury that found he intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one woman and injuring nearly 40 others.
James Fields Jr., 21, faces up to life in prison for the death of Heather Heyer, 32, in a case that has stirred soul-searching in a city that prides itself on being a liberal bastion. Mr. Fields, who traveled from Ohio to attend the Unite the Right rally, was also convicted of eight other charges, including aggravated malicious wounding and leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
Friday’s verdict was cheered by those fighting racial and religious hatred and provided some closure in a case that cast a national spotlight on Charlottesville, the scene chosen by racists and anti-Semites to rally for their cause, near a Confederate monument that some city leaders were trying to remove.
“This verdict sends a strong message to others that hate has no place in our society,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League.
The attack, in which Mr. Fields sped down a narrow street teeming with counterprotesters, was a deadly coda to a weekend of white nationalist events in Charlottesville last August, which included a pre-rally march with torches to the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the campus of the University of Virginia. The rally was marked by violent clashes between counterprotesters and white nationalists, some of whom were convicted earlier this year.
Many of Mr. Fields’s victims had confronted ralliers earlier that day and were on their way home, celebrating the fact that authorities had shut down the event, when they were struck by his Dodge Challenger.
[Read: Year After White Nationalist Rally, Charlottesville Is in Tug of War Over Its Soul]
Mr. Fields showed no emotion and sat subdued between his lawyers as a clerk read the unanimous verdicts and polled the jury of seven women and five men, including one African-American man. At one point, Mr. Fields glanced back toward his mother, who, dressed in black and sitting in a wheelchair, sobbed quietly into a tissue. Judge Richard E. Moore of Charlottesville Circuit Court affirmed the verdicts, but made no comment.
His victims sobbed, hugged, and softly cheered inside the crowded courtroom. Several joined in a group hug around Star Peterson, a single mother whose legs and back were broken in the crash. Constance Paige Young, who was also injured, said the guilty verdicts and a coming federal hate crime trial would “set a precedent that this white nationalist violence that has been present since this nation’s inception is no longer tolerable.”
The nine-day trial featured days of emotional testimony from victims who were seriously injured in the crash, including Ms. Peterson and Marcus Martin, who pushed his girlfriend out of the way, bearing the brunt of the impact himself. He later married her. Many of the victims returned to the courtroom day after day to listen to other witnesses, and jurors saw them hugging and comforting one another.
During much of the testimony, Mr. Fields betrayed no emotion and appeared apathetic as his victims described their pain and lasting injuries.
But Courtney Commander, whose knee was grazed by the car, said that in the first days of testimony, Mr. Fields mouthed the words, “I’m sorry” at her, prompting her and two other victims to leave the courtroom.
“I don’t even know how to feel about it,” she said before the verdict came down. “Even if he does feel sorry, it’s not going to bring back my friend.”
During the trial, prosecutors introduced evidence that Mr. Fields intended to commit harm when he drove from Ohio to attend the rally. In a text message exchange with his mother, she told him to be careful. “We’re not the one[s] who need to be careful,” he replied in a message that also included a photo of Adolf Hilter.
Prosecutors also showed the jury a cartoon that Mr. Fields had shared months earlier on Instagram of a car ramming into a crowd, with the words, “You have the right to protest but I’m late for work.” Other evidence included recordings of conversations that Mr. Fields had with his mother after his arrest, in which he described the counterprotesters at the rally as a “violent gang of terrorists,” and derided Ms. Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, as an “anti-white liberal” who should be viewed as an enemy.
[Read: In Charlottesville Murder Trial, Courtroom Relives Trauma of a Violent Day]
Mr. Fields’s defense lawyers did not dispute that he drove his car into the crowd, but claimed that he “acted out of fear” rather than malice, highlighting the scuffles and clashes that took place earlier that day between Unite the Right participants and anti-racism activists.
“There’s no evidence he came prepared to do any harm,” said John Hill, a defense lawyer, during the trial. The defense called Dwayne Dixon, an anti-racism activist, to testify, and he acknowledged shouting at a gray car while he had an AR-15 rifle slung over his shoulder.
But video footage from that day showed Mr. Fields’s car idling and then backing up before it plowed ahead into the crowd.
Jurors were visibly moved by testimony of victims describing the crash. Mr. Fields drove away — a sneaker still stuck in the grill of the car — and was stopped on a road heading out of town. In a conversation with a police officer, his voice flat and calm, he said, “I didn’t want to hurt people, but I thought they were attacking me.” When he was told that a person died and many were injured, he gasped and sobbed.
A prosecutor, Nina-Alice Antony, argued that Mr. Fields clearly had “specific intent to kill a human being,” even if he had not singled out any particular person in the crowd.
The rally, which purported to be a defense of the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, which some in the city were trying to remove, tore at the fabric of Charlottesville even before it was held, as anti-racism activists begged city officials not to hold it, warning that there would be violence.
City leaders eventually tried to stop the rally from being held, but a judge allowed it to move forward, citing free speech rights.
The violence that broke out, in particular the deadly crash, gave elected officials new ammunition in their attempts to get judges to curtail white nationalist events.
Support grew for the statues’ removal, and many local Republican officials distanced themselves from people associated with the rally. President Trump was widely criticized for comments that suggested that “very fine people on both sides” had been to blame for the violence.
Nearly every official who held power at the time has since resigned or retired. The city attorney, who concluded that there was no legal way to stop the rally, took a job in another town. The police chief stepped down in the wake of a critical report accusing him of failing to protect the public. The city manager, who oversaw the city’s response, also left and a permanent replacement has yet to be found.
Instead of uniting the right, the rally’s purported goal, it empowered a leftist political coalition that vows to confront generations of racial and economic injustice. But despite the drastic overhaul of the city’s leadership, wholesale change has been slow to take hold.
The bronze Confederate generals that ignited the rally still sit on horseback in public parks. Activists still demand their removal. A judge still forbids it. Their fate may be decided next month.
A sentencing hearing with the same jury is scheduled to begin Monday, pending possible delays for a snowstorm predicted for the weekend. Mr. Fields also faces the death penalty in a second trial on federal hate crimes charges next year. A guilty verdict in that case, his victims said, would be critical to sending a message that violent white supremacy would not be tolerated.
Outside the brick courthouse Friday evening, just a few blocks from where Mr. Fields drove his car into the crowd — punctuating that August afternoon with screams and chaos — several of his victims stood on the steps. With the lights of local television cameras casting glows on their faces, they chanted defiantly, “Whose streets? Our streets!”
Jonathan M. Katz reported from Charlottesville, and Farah Stockman from Boston.
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