The man accused of perpetrating the deadly car attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer was indicted on Wednesday on 30 counts, including hate crimes resulting in death and bodily injury.
In August 2017, James Fields Jr. allegedly drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters during the Unite the Right rally, which brought white supremacists, members of the alt-right, and their supporters to Charlottesville. The attack left one counterprotester, Heather Heyer, dead and many others injured.
In the indictment released Wednesday, federal prosecutors wrote that Fields “slowly reversed his vehicle to the top of the hill” while a “racially and ethnically diverse crowd of individuals” gathered at the bottom of the hill. He “then rapidly accelerated, ran through a stop sign and across a raised pedestrian mall, and drove directly into the crowd,” according to the indictment.
Fields was charged with one count of a hate crime act resulting in Heyer’s death, 28 counts of hate crime acts causing bodily injury with the intent to kill (one count per injured victim), and one count of a racially motivated violent interference with a federally protected activity (for driving his car into the crowd on a public street). Together, these charges could carry a possible life sentence.
The two hate crime statutes require that federal prosecutors prove that Fields was motivated to commit the crimes because of the “the actual and perceived race, color, religion, and national origin of individuals.” The indictment notes that prior to the Charlottesville attack Fields had used social media accounts to advocate for violence against African Americans, Jewish Americans, and members of other “non-white” racial/ethnic groups and express his “support [for] the social and racial policies of Adolf Hitler and Nazi-era Germany, including the Holocaust.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions—who has been criticized for opposing federal hate crimes protections while in the Senate—forcefully condemned the violent Charlottesville car attack in a statement on Wednesday. “At the Department of Justice, we remain resolute that hateful ideologies will not have the last word and that their adherents will not get away with violent crimes against those they target,” Sessions said. “Today’s indictment should send a clear message to every would-be criminal in America that we aggressively prosecute violent crimes of hate that threaten the core principles of our nation.”
During his time as head of the Justice Department, Sessions has surprisingly taken a keen focus on enforcing hate crime laws. It is important, however, to keep in mind that this fierce approach to prosecution is part of Sessions’ broader “tough on crime” platform, which has been met with some resistance from those who oppose mass incarceration.
Despite his abysmal track record on civil rights issues, Sessions was one of the first members of the Trump administration to condemn Heyer’s death, calling it an “evil” act of domestic terrorism. In contrast, President Trump conflated the white supremacists and their anti-racist opponents by criticizing the violence on “many sides.”
In addition to the federal charges announced on Wednesday, Fields was already facing first-degree murder charges and malicious wounding charges in state court for the car attack. He has been in custody since last year.