The 21-year-old driver of a vehicle that ripped through crowds of demonstrators advocating against the hateful undertones of a white nationalist rally last summer pleaded not guilty to 30 hate crimes in federal court Thursday afternoon.
James Alex Fields Jr. was indicted in late June on the federal charges, including a hate crime act resulting in the death of Heather Heyer. The 32-year-old paralegal died when a Dodge Challenger drove through a group of people calling for peace and equality amid growing racial tensions amid the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. last August.
Dozens of others were injured in the attack.
In a new filing this week, prosecutors said the FBI gathered more evidence in this case than they did in the Boston Marathon Bombing in April 2013.
“Last summer’s violence in Charlottesville cut short a promising young life and shocked the nation,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, adding that the recent 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.”
Thousands of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and white supremacists overwhelmed the college town to protest local officials’ decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park. Tensions mounted as the day progressed and the event quickly descended into chaos and violence. The brutal car attack brought an end to the event, with officials forcing crowds to disband.
Authorities have said Fields — described by a former teacher as having a “fascination with Nazism and a big idolatry of Adolf Hitler” — drove his car at a “high rate of speed” through downtown Charlottesville, with the car striking several people before crashing into a minivan.
Earlier in the day, Fields was photographed with a shield baring the emblem for Vanguard America, one of the hate groups behind the contentious rally. The organization has since denied that he is a member.
A grand jury in Charlottesville late last year separately indicted Fields on 10 charges stemming from the violence at the August rally, including first-degree murder — that case is slated for trial in the fall.
Its not clear whether or not the prosecution will seek the death penalty in his case.
The maximum punishment for “Hate Crime Act Resulting in Death” is life in prison, but prosecutors also charged Fields with “Bias-Motivated Interference with Federally Protected Activity Resulting in Death,” which can be punishable by death.
Officials said the outcome of his case in Charlottesville Circuit Court will affect the “Attorney General’s death penalty determination.”