Virginia jury wants life sentence for neo-Nazi who killed protester

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) - A Virginia jury on Tuesday sentenced to life in prison a self-described neo-Nazi who killed a woman when he rammed his car into a crowd protesting two days of white supremacist rallies in the college town of Charlottesville.

The Charlottesville, Virginia, jury urged a judge to send James Fields, 21, to prison for the rest of his life four days after finding the Ohio man guilty of first-degree murder and nine other crimes for killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring 19 people after the “Unite the Right” gathering in August 2017.

The event proved a critical moment in the rise of the “alt-right,” a loose alignment of fringe groups centered on white nationalism and emboldened by President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory.

Trump was criticized from the left and right for initially saying there were “fine people on both sides” of a dispute between neo-Nazis and their opponents, and subsequent alt-right gatherings failed to draw the crowds of hundreds of people that assembled in Charlottesville.

Fields sat impassively, dressed in a light blue sweater and black-rimmed glasses, during Tuesday’s sentencing.

Judge Richard Moore said he will decide whether to accept the jury’s recommendation at a March 29 hearing. In addition to a life term for murder, the jury suggested a total of 419 years in prison for the nine other crimes Fields was convicted of.

Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, tearfully told the jurors on Monday that her daughter’s message of tolerance would live on.

“I trusted the system of justice to handle what it needed to handle,” Bro told reporters after Tuesday’s decision was announced. “I was not going to be consumed by hatred for this young man.”

Fields’ attorneys, who did not speak to reporters after Tuesday’s court session, never disputed that Fields accelerated his Dodge Charger into a group of counter-protesters, sending bodies flying. The lawyers instead suggested that he felt intimidated by a hostile crowd and acted to protect himself.

Fields, a resident of Maumee, Ohio, was photographed hours before the attack carrying a shield with the emblem of a far-right hate group. He has identified himself as a neo-Nazi.

He also faces separate federal hate-crime charges, which carry a potential death sentence. He has pleaded not guilty in that case.

Reporting by Gary Robertson, writing by Joseph Ax; editing by Bill Berkrot, Steve Orlofsky and Grant McCool