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Charlottesville murderer James Fields sentenced to life in federal prison

Defense lawyers argued Fields came by his neo-Nazi politics honestly, and should receive a lighter sentence.

A counterprotester holds a photo of Heather Heyer on Boston Common at a "Free Speech" rally organized by conservative activists in Boston. Heyer was killed when a car, driven by James Alex Fields Jr., plowed into a group of people during protests in Charlottesville, Va. CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
A counterprotester holds a photo of Heather Heyer on Boston Common at a "Free Speech" rally organized by conservative activists in Boston. Heyer was killed when a car, driven by James Alex Fields Jr., plowed into a group of people during protests in Charlottesville, Va. CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

The neo-Nazi who murdered Heather Heyer will spend the rest of his life in prison, a federal judge in Virginia ruled Friday.

Attorneys for James Fields had asked the federal authorities to be more lenient than jurors in his state-court murder trial had been late last year. They made standard defense-bar arguments for a gentler punishment on Fields’ hate-crime conviction, arguing his childhood traumas should be mitigating factors.

But Fields, who plowed his car through a crowd of anti-racism demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, after attending a massive white supremacist rally there in August 2017, makes for a difficult fit for those considerations.

The childhood traumas his lawyers pointed to included the murder of a female relative by an estranged romantic partner who, Fields’ defense team took pains to note, had been Jewish. The defense team seemed to imply that Fields’ anti-Semitic and white nationalist views in adulthood sprung in part from that memory.

Fields’ hateful motives were precisely the reason he should be sent away for the rest of his life, the federal prosecutors on the case had argued. The judge agreed, handing down the maximum allowable federal penalty despite Fields’ guilty plea. He has yet to be sentenced on his state murder charges, which he chose to contest but for which a jury convicted him in 2018. A Virginia judge has yet to rule on the jury’s recommendation of a separate life sentence in that case.

Federal prosecutors had initially wavered on whether or not to pursue Fields under hate-crimes statutes.

Heyer was the only member of the several-hundred-person march to be killed in Fields’ attack. Another two dozen were struck and injured. The counter-protesters had re-formed after police dispersed the neo-Nazi elements and counter-protesters alike from a Charlottesville park that was then home to monuments to Confederate traitors.

The race-hate rally was the largest of its kind in decades, and began about 12 hours after a smaller crowd of neo-fascists had marched through the nearby University of Virginia carrying torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

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Though Heyer became one face of the counter-demonstrations and Fields a central avatar of the young, highly web-literate modern version of American fascism, the legacy and human networks of the bloody chaos in Charlottesville are, of course, much wider.

Both radical anti-fascists and more traditional non-violent protesters for tolerance have persisted in countering the physical presence and political influence of the so-called “alt-right.”

But the resurgent fascist movement Fields drove down from Ohio to support in person that weekend continues to make its presence felt in the public square two years later.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated as events warrant.