Back in August, a white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia that had already become the subject of national scrutiny became even more of a lightning rod when James Alex Fields Jr’s Dodge Challenger barreled through the crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring as many as 35 others there to protest the gathering. Today we have a new development on the legal proceedings against Fields.
CNN reports that the charge Fields faces has just been upgraded from second-degree murder to first-degree:
Prosecutors played the surveillance video from a Charlottesville restaurant in addition to a video from a Virginia State Police helicopter monitoring the events.
Authorities say the footage captures Fields’ Challenger stopping about a block and a half away from protesters, reversing, then driving into the crowd and speeding away in reverse. Fields was apprehended about four minutes after the collision, about a mile away.
Fields could not be seen driving the car in either video, but the aerial shot showed Fields getting out of the car and on the ground after the collision.
Charlottesville Det. Steven Young, a prosecution witness, testified he was patrolling Emancipation Park on foot when he heard the radio traffic reporting an incident near Fourth and Water streets that day. He and three other officers jumped into a van and responded to the location where the Challenger had stopped.
Young said he arrived on the scene shortly after police pulled the Challenger over. By then, Fields was already on the ground in handcuffs, Young said.
The detective said he saw blood and flesh on the front of the car. The front fender was torn off and the windshield was cracked, Young said.
People had tried to stop Fields from driving away, creating two holes in the back window, said Young, who is investigating the case.
The Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally was ostensibly billed as an innocent gathering to protest the removal of a local Robert E. Lee statue, but while it might have drawn a small handful of attendees solely interested in historical preservation (though one imagines any well-intentioned people who showed up would have turned around as soon as they saw all the swastikas), it was also heavily promoted and attended by racist fringe groups.
From the available information, it appears that Fields belongs, not surprisingly, to the latter group. According to a New York Times profile, he grew up as something of a social outcast and developed an attraction to racist ideologies:
Derek Weimer, 45, told The Cincinnati Enquirer that Mr. Fields was one of his students when he taught history at Randall K. Cooper High School. He described Mr. Fields as “a very bright kid but very misguided and disillusioned.”
When Mr. Fields was a freshman, he wrote a report for another class that was “very much along the party lines of the neo-Nazi movement,” Mr. Weimer said […]
A photographer said he saw Mr. Fields on Saturday with symbols of Vanguard America, a group whose manifesto declares that “a government based in the natural law must not cater to the false notion of equality.” The organization denied any ties to Mr. Fields.
Further, a previous CNN report included photos of Fields apparently marching alongside the neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville.
ABC News adds that the difference between second- and first-degree murder convictions is the difference between a 40-year sentence and life imprisonment. Fields has been denied bail and did not enter a plea.