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Charges upgraded for Charlottesville car attack suspect James Fields, Jr.

A vehicle drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, on Sat., Aug. 12, 2017.

Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via AP

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Charges have been upgraded for an Ohio man accused of driving into a crowd of counter-protesters during an August white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, killing a woman. James Fields, Jr., 20, now faces a first-degree murder charge following a Thursday preliminary hearing for the death of Heather Heyer, reports CBS affiliate WCAV.

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James Alex Fields, 20, has been charged in the fatal car crash in Charlottesville.

Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail

Fields, described as having a keen interest in Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler, was initially charged with second-degree murder and other counts in the Aug. 12 attack that killed Heyer and injured dozens of others. The rampage came during a weekend of clashes between white nationalists and counter-protesters that rocked the college town and renewed the national debate over what to do with symbols of the Confederacy.

Charlottesville became a target for white nationalists after its city council voted to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. The rally by a loosely connected mix of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists was the largest gathering of such groups in a decade.

Citing intense media coverage and public interest surrounding the case, a judge moved the Thursday hearing from Charlottesville General District Court to a circuit courthouse, writing in the order that "no outbursts, gestures, comments or other disruptive behavior" would be tolerated.

The preliminary hearing was set to establish whether prosecutors have enough evidence to seek an indictment. Neither the commonwealth's attorney's office nor Fields' attorney responded to questions from The Associated Press ahead of the hearing.

Fields has been in custody since the rally and so far has made only brief court appearances by video link. His attorney, Denise Lunsford, has not spoken publicly about the case and has declined to make Fields available for an interview.

After several smaller rallies, hundreds of white nationalists and counter-protesters converged in downtown Charlottesville on Aug. 12. Fighting broke out before the event officially began and the brawling went on for about an hour until an unlawful assembly was declared and the crowd was forced to disband.

Later, as counterdemonstrators were peacefully marching through downtown, the car barreled into the crowd. Video of the crash showed the car reversing and hitting more people amid a screech of tires.

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Heather Heyer

Gov. Terry McAuliffe/Twitter

Heyer, 32, was killed. The same day, a Virginia State Police helicopter deployed in the large-scale police response to the violence also crashed, killing two troopers on board.

Fields was photographed hours before the attack with a shield bearing the emblem of Vanguard America, one of the hate groups that took part in the rally, although the group denied any association with him. A former teacher, Derek Weimer, has said Fields was fascinated in high school with Nazism, idolized Adolf Hitler, and had been singled out by officials at his Union, Kentucky, school for "deeply held, radical" convictions on race. Fields had recently moved to Ohio from Kentucky, where he grew up.

Fields' mother, Samantha Bloom, told The Associated Press on the evening of the rally that she knew her son was attending an event in Virginia but didn't know it was a white supremacist rally.

Marcus Martin, who was hit and upended by the car, attended Thursday's hearing.

Martin's leg was broken in the attack, and his body was captured in a photograph as he tumbled over the car.

Martin, who had been marching with his fiancee and Heyer, a friend of theirs, said he's been improving physically but "living every day just trying to forget."

"I just want to stand and ask him, 'Why did you do that? What made you do that?'" Martin said.