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Man pleads guilty to hate crimes in Charlottesville car attack

Man pleads guilty to hate crimes in Charlottesville car attack
A white supremacist march proceeds through the University of Virginia campus the night before the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. (Michael Nigro / Pacific Press)

An Ohio man pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal hate crime charges in the deadly car attack at a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., a case that stirred racial tensions across the country.

Under a plea agreement, James Alex Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio, pleaded guilty to 29 of 30 federal charges stemming from the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. He did not plead guilty to one count that carried a potential death penalty. His plea agreement states that the death penalty was taken off the table.

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Fields appeared stoic, with hands folded in front of him for much of the hearing. He did not speak, except to repeatedly respond, "Yes, sir," when U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski asked him whether he was pleading guilty knowingly and voluntarily.

Under the plea agreement, Fields admitted that he intentionally drove his car into the crowd because of their race, color, religion or national origin.

Urbanski scheduled sentencing for July 3. Fields faces life in prison.

James Alex Fields Jr.
James Alex Fields Jr. (Associated Press)

Fields, 21, was convicted in December in a Virginia court of first-degree murder and other state charges for killing anti-racism activist Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others. A jury found that Fields intentionally plowed his car into a crowd of people protesting against the white supremacists.

The "Unite the Right" rally drew hundreds of neo-Nazis, white nationalists and others to Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds more turned out to protest against the white supremacists.

President Trump sparked a national uproar when he blamed the violence at the rally on "both sides," implicitly equating the white supremacists and those demonstrating against racism.

After Tuesday's plea hearing, U.S. Atty. Thomas Cullen said, "The defendant's hate-inspired act of domestic terrorism not only devastated Heather Heyer's wonderful family and the 28 peaceful protesters ... but it also left an indelible mark on the city of Charlottesville, our state and our country.

"While nothing can bring Heather back or make the other 28 victims whole, it is our hope that this plea provides some closure and helps these victims move on with their lives."

Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, said she and Heyer's father agreed that they did not want prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

"There's no point in killing him," she said. "It would not bring back Heather."

The car attack by Fields came after violent brawling between the two sides prompted police to disband the crowds.

During his state trial, prosecutors said Fields — who described himself on social media as an admirer of Adolf Hitler — drove his car directly into a crowd of counterprotesters because he was angry after witnessing earlier clashes between the two sides.

The jury rejected a claim by Fields' lawyers that he acted in self-defense because he feared for his life after witnessing the earlier violence.

More than 30 people were hurt in the car attack. Some who received life-altering injuries described them in anguished detail during the state trial.

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Jurors in Fields' state trial recommended a life sentence plus 419 years, although a judge still has to decide on the punishment.

A reporter asked Bro whether she thought her daughter's death had served some purpose, such as opening a discussion of race relations. She answered: "Sadly, it took a white girl dying before anyone paid attention to civil rights around here. ... Heather's death is at least a catalyst for change."

Bro said she wouldn't have chosen that catalyst, and added, "I wish we would have woken up sooner."

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