James Alex Fields, Jr., 21, the Ohio man who drove his car into a diverse crowd of counter-protestors on Aug. 12, 2017, killing one woman and injuring dozens, pleaded guilty Wednesday in U.S. District Court to 29 counts of violating the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
The charges included one count of a hate crime act that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, and 28 counts of hate crime acts that caused bodily injury and involved an attempt to kill other people within the crowd. Each of the 29 counts carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000. Attorney General William P. Barr, FBI Director Christopher Wray, United States Attorney Thomas T. Cullen, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband, and Special Agent in Charge David Archey of the FBI’s Richmond Division made the announcement.
“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,” Attorney General William P. Barr said. “Prosecuting hate crimes is a priority for me as Attorney General. The defendant in this case has pled guilty to 29 hate crimes which he committed by driving his car into a crowd of protesters. These hate crimes are also acts of domestic terrorism. I want to thank the FBI for leading this investigation along with our partners with the Charlottesville Police Department and the Virginia State Police. I also want to thank Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband and our Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney Cullen and his office for their hard work in reaching today’s guilty plea, which brings us one step closer to bringing the defendant to justice. We will continue to vigorously prosecute violent crimes of hate and we will not allow violence to supplant our pluralism.”
“The violence in Charlottesville was an act of hate, and everyone across the country felt the impact,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “This guilty plea underscores that we won’t stand for hate and violence in our communities. Together with our law enforcement and community partners, we’ll continue to aggressively investigate hate crimes, domestic terrorism and civil rights violations.”
“The defendant’s hate-inspired act of domestic terrorism not only devastated Heather Heyer’s wonderful family and the 28 peaceful protestors who were injured at the intersection of Fourth and Water Streets, but it also left an indelible mark on the City of Charlottesville, our state, and our country,” U.S. Attorney Cullen stated today. “Although the defendant’s guilty plea cannot undo the pain, suffering, and loss that he caused, it is my hope that it will enable these victims and our community to continue the healing process.”
According to a statement of facts agreed to and signed by Fields, and entered into the court record at his guilty plea hearing, Fields admitted that he drove into the crowd of counter-protestors because of the actual and perceived race, color, national origin, and religion of its members. He further admitted that his actions killed Heather Heyer, and that he intended to kill the other victims he struck and injured with his car.
With regard to the details of the attack, Fields also admitted that, prior to Aug. 12, 2017, he used social media accounts to express and promote white supremacist views on his social media accounts; to express support of the social and racial policies of Adolf Hitler and Nazi-era Germany, including the Holocaust; and to espouse violence against African Americans, Jewish people, and members of other racial, ethnic, and religious groups he perceived to be non-white. Fields also expressed these views directly in interactions with individuals known to him.
Fields further admitted that, on Aug. 12, 2017, he attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia. That morning, multiple groups and individuals espousing white-supremacist ideology also attended the rally. These rally participants, including Fields, engaged in chants promoting or expressing white supremacist and other racist and anti-Semitic views.
Shortly before the scheduled start of the Unite the Right rally, law enforcement declared an “unlawful assembly” and required rally participants, including Fields, to disperse. Fields later returned to his vehicle and began to drive on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia.
Fields drove his car onto Fourth Street, a narrow, downhill, one-way street in downtown Charlottesville. At or around that same time, a racially and ethnically diverse crowd had gathered at the bottom of the hill, at the intersection of Fourth and Water Streets. Many of the individuals in the crowd were celebrating as they were chanting and carrying signs promoting equality and protesting against racial and other forms of discrimination. Fields slowly proceeded in his vehicle down Fourth Street toward the crowd. He then stopped and observed the crowd while idling in his vehicle. With no vehicle behind him, Fields then slowly reversed his vehicle toward the top of the hill.
At or around that same time, the members of the crowd began to walk up the hill, populating the streets and sidewalks between the buildings on Fourth Street. Having reversed his car to a point at or near the top of the hill and the intersection of Fourth and Market Streets, Fields stopped again. Fields admitted that he then rapidly accelerated forward down Fourth Street in his vehicle, running through a stop sign and across a raised pedestrian mall, and drove directly into the crowd. Fields’s vehicle stopped only when it struck another stopped vehicle near the intersection of Fourth and Water Streets. Fields then rapidly reversed his car and fled the scene. As Fields drove into and through the crowd, Fields struck numerous individuals, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 28 people nearby.
The investigation of the case was led by the FBI and supported by the Charlottesville Police Department and Virginia State Police. United States Attorney Thomas T. Cullen, Assistant United States Attorney Christopher Kavanaugh, and Trial Attorney Risa Berkower with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice are prosecuting the case for the United States.