Watch CBS News

White supremacist gets life in prison for deadly Charlottesville car attack

Victim's mom speaks after killer sentenced
Heather Heyer's mother speaks after Charlottesville car attack sentencing 01:29

An avowed white supremacist who drove his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters during a white nationalist rally in Virginia has been sentenced to life in prison on hate crime charges. James Alex Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio, was sentenced Friday after pleading guilty in March to federal hate crime charges. In exchange for the guilty plea, prosecutors dropped their request for the death penalty.

Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and civil rights activist, was killed in the attack. Nearly three dozen others were injured. The case stirred racial tensions around the country.

The "Unite the Right" rally on Aug. 12, 2017, drew hundreds of white nationalists to Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Fields admitted deliberately driving his car into counterprotesters who showed up to demonstrate against the white nationalists. Fields, accompanied by one of his lawyers, walked to a podium in the courtroom and spoke. 

Heather Heyer Terry McAuliffe/Twitter

"I apologize for the hurt and loss I've caused," he said, later adding, "Every day I think about how things could have gone differently and how I regret my actions. I'm sorry."

Fields' comment came after more than a dozen survivors of and witnesses to the attack delivered emotional testimony about the physical and psychological wounds they had received as a result of the events that day. Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, was one of the people to speak, CBS affiliate WCAV reported.

"I never wish for the death penalty and still don't," Bro said. "I would like to see him change in time from a white supremacist to someone who helps bring others away from white supremacy."

Rosia Parker, a longtime civil rights activist in Charlottesville who said she was standing feet away from Heyer when she was struck by Fields' car, also spoke in court. 

"You could have done anything else but what you did," Parker said, her voice choking as she stared directly at Fields. "So, yeah, you deserve everything that you get."

Fields appeared stoic and didn't look at Parker or any of the victims as they spoke.

Speaking to reporters after the sentencing, Bro said she didn't believe Fields' apology was genuine.

"That was a last ditch attempt to get a reduced sentence-- he's the least sincere person I've ever met," Bro said.

Bro said the sentence sends a message that "you don't get away with it."

Bro said she is "done with" Fields and wants to move on with her life and focus on her civil rights activism, including awarding scholarships in her daughter's name through the Heather Heyer Foundation. 

"You don't get to knock my child down and silence that voice without 500 more raising up," Bro said.

During the sentencing hearing Friday, FBI Special Agent Wade Douthit read grand jury testimony from a high school classmate of Fields. The classmate said Fields was "like a kid at Disney World" during his high school trip to a German concentration camp. According to the testimony, Fields appeared happy when touring the Dachau camp and remarked, "This is where the magic happened."

The statement provoked audible gasps from a packed courtroom crowd.

Fields was charged with 29 hate crime counts and one count of "racially motivated violent interference." He pleaded guilty to 29 of the counts. His attorneys asked for a sentence less than life. He will be sentenced next month on separate state charges including first-degree murder.

In a sentencing memo filed in court in the federal case last week, Fields' lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski to consider a sentence of "less than life."

"No amount of punishment imposed on James can repair the damage he caused to dozens of innocent people. But this Court should find that retribution has limits," his attorneys wrote. 

During Fields' state trial, a psychologist testified for the defense that Fields had inexplicable volatile outbursts as a young child, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 6 and was later diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder.

A vehicle drives into a group of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 12, 2017. Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via AP

In a sentencing memo, defense attorneys said Fields was raised by a paraplegic single mother and suffered "trauma" knowing that his Jewish grandfather had murdered his grandmother before taking his own life.

Prosecutors, however, said Fields has a long history of racist and anti-Semitic behavior and has shown no remorse for his crimes. They said he's an avowed white supremacist, admired Adolf Hitler and even kept a picture of the Nazi leader on his bedside table.

Speaking to reporters Friday, U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen called the car rampage "calculated, cold blooded and motivated by this deep seated racial animus he has demonstrated throughout the course of his life."

Fields faces sentencing in state court on July 15. A jury has recommended life plus 419 years. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.