Heather Heyer’s killer is set to spend at least the next 39 years of his life behind bars, and will likely die in prison after a Virginia jury issued a sentence of life plus 419 years on Tuesday.
James Fields, the 21-year-old Ohio man who rammed his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters shortly after police had dispersed the largest white supremacist rally in modern U.S. history in 2017, has not yet faced separate federal charges that include hate crimes enhancements.
Virginia law allows prisoners to apply for geriatric release once they hit age 60, according to the Washington Post. Parole authorities of the future would have to look past a massive list of convictions to grant Fields such a release. He was convicted of nine separate felonies in addition to the first-degree murder charge for killing Heyer.
Richard E. Moore, the judge in the case, gets final say on Fields’ actual sentencing. The jury’s half-millenium sentence recommendation is not binding under Virginia law; if he chooses, Moore can levy a lesser penalty at the March hearing he’s set for a final sentencing order.
Fields was a devoted follower of the neo-Nazi teachings of the white supremacists who organized the rally, and was photographed in one of the several “shield walls” ThinkProgress reporters saw organized by the race-hate groups on the day of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.
The picture shows Fields in matching dress to members of a white nationalist group called Vanguard America, and holding a shield emblazoned with their logo. The group has denied he was a member. Other people carrying Vanguard logos and weapons were later photographed at the scene where white supremacists severely beat a local black man at a parking garage. Police had dispersed the main rally but never contained or controlled the human flow. The city’s downtown was full of roving bands of armed people for hours.
Nobody in the white supremacist crowd seems eager to claim Fields. But he’d responded to an organized call not just for participants but for “security” at the rally, put out by lead organizers like Jason Kessler. Vanguard America also cooperated with the notorious neo-Nazi thugs known as Hammerskins to provide security at a much smaller anniversary event convened this past August by Kessler and others.
Shortly before President Donald Trump told the nation there’d been “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides” of the street melee between the Vanguard America types and a far smaller cadre of similarly equipped anti-fascist brawlers, rally attendees on a Discord chat server celebrated the news of Fields’ car attack on a peaceful march several blocks away.
Days later, when Trump doubled down on the false equivalence, white supremacists rejoiced all across the internet. The president’s decision that it was important to defend neo-confederate ideologues as noble protectors of the south’s slave-owning insurrectionist legacy was specifically heralded by organizers as a crucial recruiting boost after Fields’ murderous attack had undermined their aims.
While Fields is unlikely to breathe free again, numerous others connected to the Charlottesville violence have remained at large — in some cases popping up in headlines again because they were later arrested for planning or engaging in racially motivated public violence elsewhere. Amtrak hijacker Taylor Wilson had chatted with the Unite the Right organizers on Discord. Jeffrey Clark, another neo-Nazi arrested recently on drug and weapon charges in Washington D.C., spent part of the rally hanging out with Richard Spencer.