DOJ opens very narrow probe into Charlottesville killing

What happens when Jeff Sessions' DOJ faces a possible hate crime?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Locher
Attorney General Jeff Sessions. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Locher

On Saturday, the Justice Department opened its most high profile new investigation into a possible hate crime since the Senate confirmed an attorney general who was once deemed too racist to be a federal judge. The DOJ announced that “the Richmond FBI field office, the Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western district of Virginia have opened a civil rights investigation into the circumstances” of a deadly crash where a driver appeared to intentionally plow into surrounding crowds during Saturday’s protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Although Donald Trump refused to condemn white nationalists who descended on Charlottesville this weekend — preferring instead to blame violence on “many sides” — Attorney General Jeff Sessions struck a more pointed tone in a statement reacting to the events in Charlottesville. “The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice,” Sessions said. “When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated.”

Nevertheless, as Vanita Gupta, who led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for part of the Obama administration, noted on Twitter, DOJ’s probe is currently very limited in scope.

At least according to the Justice Department statement referenced by Gupta, DOJ’s involvement is limited to the alleged homicide caused by a single driver. It is not a broader investigation into the white supremacist groups that triggered a weekend of chaos in Charlottesville.

It also remains to be seen whether the Justice Department will treat the fatal crash as a hate crime. Although the First Amendment does place considerable limits on the government’s ability to proscribe hate speech, current law permits someone convicted of a crime to receive a higher sentence if that crime was motivated by racial hatred. Many conservatives, however, view such enhanced sentences as a violation of the First Amendment, and it remains to be seen whether a Sessions-led Justice Department will be willing to seek such an enhancement.

Multiple reports connect James Fields, the man police say was at the wheel during the fatal crash, to a Facebook page loaded with white nationalist imagery. If the Facebook page proves to be authentic, that suggests that Fields’ alleged actions may have been a hate crime.