A federal grand jury today indicted an avowed white supremacist on hate crime charges for plowing into a crowd of counter-protesters at a far-right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, allegedly killing Heather Heyer and injuring many others. James A. Fields, Jr., was indicted in December 2017 by Virginia on first-degree murders and nine other counts.
Department of Justice prosecutors allege that Fields participated in the rally, including anti-Semitic, racist, and white-supremacist chants, until it was broken up by police. He proceeded to his car, backed up a hill, and drove into what the indictment calls a racially and ethnically diverse crowd of individuals. Heyer was killed, and the indictment includes 28 charges for injuries. An additional charge accused Fields of denying people the use of a public space for bigoted reasons.
Federal hate crime laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act, allow the Department of Justice to bring charges when a person has violent crimes or intimidation committed against them based on race, gender, disability, country of origin, and other causes. Sentences can range up to 10 years for assaults, and life in prison or the death penalty for murder.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement, “[W]e remain resolute that hateful ideologies will not have the last word and that their adherents will not get away with violent crimes against those they target.”
Sessions opposed the 2009 act that expanded hate crimes to include sexual identity and orientation. He has also spoken critically of Islam, stating in a 2016 interview relating to immigration that there is a “toxic ideology of Islam” for some adherents who support “sharia law” over the Constitution.
Nevertheless, Sessions’s DOJ has brought charges and won convictions in several cases, including the indictment in February of a man who threatened employees of the Arab American Institution over several years, and a conviction against a Texas man who assaulted another man because of his sexual orientation.
Charlotteville’s “Unite the Right” rally attracted a wide range of far-right activists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and nationalists to a park containing a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Sporadic clashes broke out between the group in the park and counter-protesters. Both sides of the conflict criticized police for not more aggressively.
In the aftermath, President Trump said of the violence, “I think there is blame on both sides,” although he called Fields a “murderer.” He also suggested some of those attending the rally were “fine people.”