Heather Heyer’s mother tells jury weighing sentence for daughter’s murderer: ‘We are forever scarred’
Jurors considering the punishment for a man who drove his car into counterprotesters during a white nationalist rally heard emotional testimony Monday from a mother who described the pain caused by her daughter’s death and from a psychologist who described the man’s long history of mental health problems.
James Alex Fields Jr. faces up to life in prison for the death of Heather Heyer and injuries he caused to dozens of other counterprotesters.
Jurors deliberated on a sentence for just under two hours Monday before adjourning. Deliberations will resume Tuesday morning.
Fields’ lawyers argued that he acted in self-defense and out of fear when he rammed his car into a crowd in Charlottesville during a “Unite the Right” rally on Aug. 12, 2017.
Prosecutors called Heyer’s mother and several people who were severely injured to testify about the effect his crimes had on them. Heyer, 32, was a paralegal and civil rights activist.
“She was full of love, she was full of justice, she was full of fairness, and Mr. Fields tried to silence that with his car, but I refuse to allow that,” said Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother.
Jurors on Friday convicted Fields of first-degree murder and other charges. Judge Richard Moore will formally sentence Fields. Judges in Virginia often impose the sentence that juries call for.
Under the law, the jury can call for 20 years to life in prison on the first-degree murder charge and each of five charges of aggravated malicious wounding. He also faces five to 20 years on three counts of malicious wounding, and up to 10 years on one count of leaving the scene of an accident.
Bro said 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 surgeries to try to repair it. She also suffered a broken spine and hasn’t been able to return to work.
“I will be dealing with the aftermath of Fields’ choices for the rest of my life,” Peterson said.
Fields, 21, drove to Virginia from his home in Maumee, Ohio, to support white supremacists. After the rally, as a large group of counterprotesters marched through Charlottesville singing and laughing, he stopped his car, backed up, then sped into the crowd, according to testimony from witnesses and video surveillance shown to jurors.
Wednesday Bowie, a counterprotester who got caught on the trunk 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 hospitalized three times for post-traumatic stress disorder over the last year.
She told the jury: “Please know that the world is not a safe place with Mr. Fields in it.”
Testifying for the defense, University of Virginia School of Medicine professor and psychologist Daniel Murrie told the jury that although Fields was not legally insane at the time, he has a long history of mental health issues.
Fields had inexplicable volatile outbursts as a young child and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 6, Murrie said. He was later diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder.
Murrie said Fields went off his psychiatric medication at age 18 and built a “lifestyle centered around being alone.”
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.
Fields’ 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.
Prosecutors told the jury during his trial that Fields was angry after witnessing violent clashes between the two sides earlier in the day. The violence prompted police to shut down the rally before it officially began. The trial also featured emotional testimony from survivors.
The Unite the Right rally had been organized in part to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists streamed into the college town for one of the largest such gatherings in a decade. Some dressed in battle gear.
Afterward, President Trump inflamed tensions further when he said “both sides” were to blame, a comment some saw as a refusal to condemn racism.
According to one of his former teachers, Fields was known in high school for being fascinated with Nazism and idolizing Adolf Hitler. Jurors were shown a text message he sent to his mother days before the rally that included an image of the notorious German dictator. When his mother pleaded with him to be careful, he replied: “We’re not the one[s] who need to be careful.”
Fields is subject to the death penalty if convicted of separate federal hate crime charges. No trial has been scheduled on those charges yet.
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