December 14, 2017 / 11:57 PM / a month ago

White nationalist charged with first-degree murder in Virginia car killing: media

(Reuters) - A white nationalist accused of killing a 32-year old woman when he plowed his car into a crowd of counter protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, was charged with first-degree murder on Thursday, local media reported.

James Fields Jr., 20, appeared at Charlottesville District Court for a preliminary hearing, during which a previous charge of second degree murder was changed to first degree murder, local TV station WSET and others reported from the court.

Fields would face up to life in prison if convicted of first degree murder, while second degree murder carries a penalty of five to 40 years in prison, according to the Virginia penal code.

Court officials and the local district attorney were not immediately available for comment.

FILE PHOTO: James Alex Fields Jr., 20, is seen in a mugshot released by Charlottesville, Virginia police department after being charged with one count of second degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of failing to stop at an accident that resulted in a death after police say he drove a car into a crowd of counter protesters during the "Unite the Right" protests by white nationalist and "alt-right" demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. Charlottesville Police Department/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Ohio-native Fields is suspected of killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 people.

The incident took place amid clashes between hundreds of white supremacists and counter-protesters. After hours of clashes, a sedan driving at high speed plowed into the crowd before reversing along the same street.

Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia’s flagship campus.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe blamed neo-Nazis for sparking the unrest in the town, where rival groups fought pitched battles using rocks and pepper spray after far-right protesters converged to demonstrate against a plan to remove a statue of a Confederate war hero.

After the rally, Republican President Donald Trump inflamed tensions by saying there were “very fine people” on both sides, drawing condemnation from some Republican leaders and praise from white supremacists.

Reporting by Ian Simpson and Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Toni Reinhold

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