Monday 14 October 2019

Jury recommends life plus 419 years for man who drove car into protesters

James Alex Fields Jr targeted crowds opposing a right-wing rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Media outside the Charlottesville Circuit Courthouse (Zack Wajsgras/The Daily Progress via AP)
Media outside the Charlottesville Circuit Courthouse (Zack Wajsgras/The Daily Progress via AP)

By Denise Lavoie, Associated Press

A jury has recommended life plus 419 years for a man convicted of killing a woman and injuring dozens when he drove his car into counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally in Virginia.

James Alex Fields Jr stood with his hands folded in front of him as a court clerk read the verdict, which will be taken under advisement by the judge, who will issue the final sentence.

Judge Richard Moore scheduled a sentencing hearing for March 29.

The jury reached its verdict after deliberating for about four hours over two days. Judges in Virginia often impose the sentence recommended by juries. Under state law, they can impose lower sentences but cannot increase them.

James Alex Fields Jr (Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail/AP)

Before issuing its recommendation, the jury asked Judge Moore if the sentences would run consecutively or concurrently. He replied that sentences usually run consecutively, but that jurors could recommend concurrent sentences if they choose.

The jury deliberated for just under two hours on Monday after hearing emotional evidence from the mother of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and activist who was killed when Fields rammed his car into a crowd at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on August 12 2017.

Jurors also heard from several people who suffered severe injuries. A psychologist testifying for the defence said Fields has a long history of mental health issues including bipolar disorder.

I will be dealing with the aftermath of Fields' choices for the rest of my life

Ms Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, told the jury her daughter’s death has been like an “an explosion in our family”.

“We are forever scarred by the pain,” she said.

Jeanne “Star” Peterson said her life has been “a living nightmare” since she was hit by Fields’ car. Her right leg was shattered, and she has had five operations to try to repair it. She also suffered a broken spine and has not been able to return to work.

“I will be dealing with the aftermath of Fields’ choices for the rest of my life,” she said.

Fields, 21, drove to Virginia from his home in Maumee, Ohio, to support the white nationalists.

After the rally, as a large group of counter-protesters marched through Charlottesville singing and laughing, he stopped his car, backed up, then sped into the crowd, according to evidence from witnesses and video surveillance shown to jurors.

Wednesday Bowie, a counter-protester who got caught on the boot of Fields’ car when he backed up and was then slammed into a parked truck and thrown to the ground, told the jury that in addition to a broken pelvis and other physical injuries, she has been treated in hospital three times for post-traumatic stress disorder over the past year.

She told the jury: “Please know that the world is not a safe place with Mr Fields in it.”

University of Virginia School of Medicine professor and psychologist Daniel Murrie told the jury that while Fields was not legally insane at the time, he has a long history of mental health issues.

A video of Fields shown to the jury during the first phase of the trial showed him sobbing and hyperventilating after he was told a woman had died and others were seriously injured.

His lawyer Denise Lunsford called him a “mentally compromised individual” and urged the jury to consider his long history of mental health issues when considering a sentence.

The Unite the Right rally had been organised in part to protest against the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee.

Hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis and other white nationalists — apparently emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump — streamed into the college town for one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists in a decade.

PA Media

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