June 28, 2019 / 10:07 AM / 4 months ago

Charlottesville neo-Nazi sentenced to life, judge says 'too great a risk' to release

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) - A federal judge imposed a life sentence on the self-described neo-Nazi who killed Heather Heyer by crashing his car into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, after a white supremacist rally, saying release would be “too great a risk.”

The 22-year-old neo-Nazi, James Fields of Maumee, Ohio, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He had sought a lesser sentence, apologizing after the court viewed video of him plowing his car into a crowd after the Aug. 12, 2017, “Unite the Right” rally, also injuring 30 people.

U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski, was unmoved by his plea, saying he had to avert his eyes while the court viewed graphic video of the attack that showed bodies flying into the air as Fields crashed into them.

“Just watching them is terrifying,” Urbanski said. “The release of the defendant into a free society is too great a risk.”

The rally proved a critical moment in the rise of the “alt-right,” a loose alignment of fringe groups centered on white nationalism and emboldened by President Donald Trump’s 2016 election.

Trump was criticized from the left and right for initially saying there were “fine people on both sides” of the dispute between neo-Nazis and their opponents at the rally. Subsequent alt-right gatherings failed to draw crowds the size of the Charlottesville rally.

After the sentencing, Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro said she hoped her daughter would be remembered as a regular person who stood up for her beliefs.

“The point of Heather’s death is not that she was a saint — and, Lord, my child was never a saint — but that an ordinary person can do a simple act ... that can make all the difference in the world,” Bro said in an interview.

Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed during the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, looks at mementos of her daughter in her office in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/Files

Ahead of Friday’s sentencing hearing, prosecutors noted that Fields had long espoused violent beliefs. Less than a month before the attack he posted an image on Instagram showing a car plowing through a crowd of people captioned: “you have the right to protest but I’m late for work.”

Fields remained unrepentant afterward, prosecutors said, noting that in a December 2017 phone call from jail with his mother, he blasted Bro for her activism after the attack.

“She is a communist. An anti-white liberal,” Fields said, according to court papers filed by prosecutors. He rejected his mother’s plea to consider that the woman had “lost her daughter,” replying, “She’s the enemy.”

‘ANATHEMA TO OUR COUNTRY’

Prosecutors noted that hate crimes, particularly those driven by white supremacist views, are on the rise in the United States. The FBI’s most recent report on hate crimes, released in November, showed a 17% rise in 2017.

Citing recent attacks on synagogues and burnings of African-American churches in Louisiana, they told a news conference that the U.S. government will continue to focus resources on prosecuting hate crimes.

“Hate-filled violence based on white supremacy and racism is anathema to our country,” said Eric Dreiband, assistant U.S. attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. “Our government will use its immense power and resolve to identify the perpetrators of these crimes and prosecute them.”

Fields pleaded guilty to the federal hate crime charges in March under a deal with prosecutors, who agreed not to seek the death penalty.

Slideshow (3 Images)

He was photographed hours before the attack carrying a shield with the emblem of a far-right hate group. He has identified himself as a neo-Nazi.

Fields’ attorneys suggested he felt intimidated and acted to protect himself. They asked for mercy, citing his relative youth and history of mental health diagnoses.

Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Scott Malone, Bill Trott, James Dalgleish and Jonathan Oatis

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