Driver in fatal car attack at Charlottesville rally charged with federal hate crime

WASHINGTON, June 27 (Reuters) - A man who was charged with killing a counter-protester during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last year has also been charged by federal authorities with hate crimes and could face the death penalty, the U.S. Department of Justice said on Wednesday.

The rally gained international attention when James Alex Fields, Jr. plowed into a group of people protesting the Unite the Right rally. Thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer was killed and dozens were injured.

Fields separately faces state murder charges in Virginia.

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The violence was sparked after hundreds of people, some carrying white nationalist symbols and Confederate flags descended on Charlottesville to protest plans to remove a statue honoring a Confederate commander.

A clash between the protesters and counter-protesters forced Charlottesville authorities to declare a curfew.

"Today's indictment should send a clear message to every would-be criminal in America that we aggressively prosecute violent crimes of hate that threaten the core principles of our nation," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.

At the time, U.S. President Donald Trump was condemned by both Democratic and Republican politicians after he said blame for the violence rested on "many sides."

RELATED: Charlottesville rally victim Heather Heyer's memorial

According to the indictment, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, Fields routinely promoted racist ideologies on his social media accounts, including expressing support for Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust.

Prior to heading out for the rally, it says, a family member texted and told him to be careful.

"We're not the ones who need to be careful," he responded, along with an image of Adolf Hitler.

He is charged with willfully causing bodily harm to Heyer, which resulted in her death, "because of the actual and perceived race, color, religion, and national origin of individuals in a crowd."

He also faces multiple counts of committing a hate crime with an attempt to kill, and charges of bias-motivated interference with federally protected activity resulting in death.

The hate crimes case is eligible for the death penalty, though whether capital punishment will be pursued is still unknown.

In addition, the grand jury also found that he intentionally killed Heyer and that he knew his actions would create the grave risk of death.

(Reporting by Makini Brice and Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Alistair Bell)