Charlottesville: James Alex Fields guilty of first-degree murder

Fields slammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally, killing Heather Heyer in 2017.

    James Alex Fields Jr, left, holds a black shield in Charlottesville where a white supremacist rally took place [File: Alan Goffinski/AP Photo]
    James Alex Fields Jr, left, holds a black shield in Charlottesville where a white supremacist rally took place [File: Alan Goffinski/AP Photo]

    A Virginia jury has convicted James Alex Fields Jr of first-degree murder in the death of Heather Heyer at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. 

    The jury deliberated for less than a day before convicting on Friday the 21-year-old of murder and several other charges stemming from the deadly confrontation that occurred after police had declared an unlawful assembly and cleared a park of white supremacists gathered for the "Unite the Right" rally. 

    During the incident, Fields slammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heyer and injuring dozens more.

    Earlier in the day, Fields was photographed marching with Vanguard America, a neo-Nazi group, during the rally. Throughout the day, rally participants clashed with community members, anti-racists and anti-fascists across the city.

    Unite the Right, called to oppose Charlottesville's decision to remove a Confederate statue, was the largest white nationalist rally in the United States in recent times.

    The rally brought out thousands of supporters of the alt-right, a loosely-knit coalition of white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis. 

    A photo of Heather Heyer, who was killed during a white nationalist rally, sits on the ground at a memorial in Charlottesville, Virginia [Evan Vucci/AP Photo]

    Fields's defence team did not contest that he was behind the wheel of the grey Dodge Challenger when it struck activists who had descended upon the Virginia city to counter a "Unite the Right" rally. But they argued their client was "scared for his life". 

    The prosecution called multiple witnesses and victims who recounted in some cases what turned out to be life-altering injuries.

    The witnesses testified the event had become peaceful, "joyful" and "celebratory" after city authorities ordered the far right to disperse - countering the defence's narrative of a hostile, frightening atmosphere at the time of the attack.

    Earlier in the week, they presented jurors an SMS message Fields sent to his mother before departing for the rally after she had asked him to be careful.

    "We're not the one who need to be careful" he replied, alongside a photo of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, whom he has long admired.

    Federal charges

    Separately, Fields also faces dozens of federal charges, including hate crimes, which could result in the death penalty. 

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    In the wake of the deadly Charlottesville protest, several articles investigating Fields's history found a lengthy social media trail of neo-Nazi content and racist posts.

    Following the rally, far-right participants from across the country faced legal backlash, with a slew of civil suits against the organisers.

    Heyer was among 18 people killed by white supremacists in the US last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League. White nationalist, neo-Nazi and far-right groups that took to the streets in Charlottesville saw permits for a spate of subsequent public events pulled or denied, while hosting services, social media outlets and tech companies cracked down on far-right individuals and groups. 

    Earlier this month, the FBI released its annual hate crimes report for 2017. It says, hate crimes grew for the third consecutive year, increasing by 17 percent. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies