An avowed white supremacist who drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters during a white nationalist rally in Virginia was sentenced to life in prison Friday on federal hate crime charges.
James Alex Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio, had pleaded guilty in March to 29 of 30 hate crimes in connection with the 2017 attack that killed Heather Heyer and injured more than two dozen others.
Prosecutors and Fields' lawyers agreed that federal sentencing guidelines called for a life sentence. But in a sentencing memo filed in court last week, his lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski to consider a sentence of "less than life," hoping he would take into account Fields' troubled childhood and mental health issues.
Before the sentencing, the 22-year-old Fields, accompanied by one of his lawyers, walked to a podium in the courtroom and apologized.
"I apologize for the hurt and loss I've caused," he said, later adding, "Every day I think about how things could have gone differently and how I regret my actions. I'm sorry."
Fields' comment came after more than a dozen survivors of and witnesses to the attack delivered emotional testimony about the physical and psychological wounds they had received as a result of the events that day.
Fields drove from his home in Maumee, Ohio, to attend the "Unite the Right" rally on Aug. 12, 2017, which drew hundreds of white nationalists to Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds of counterprotesters showed up as well.
The case stirred racial tensions around the country.
Fields was charged with 29 hate crime counts and one count of "racially motivated violent interference." He pleaded guilty to 29 of the 30 counts.
Prosecutors said Fields had a long history of racist and anti-Semitic behavior and had shown no remorse for his crimes. They said he is an avowed white supremacist, admired Adolf Hitler and even kept a picture of the Nazi leader on his bedside table.
During the sentencing hearing Friday, FBI Special Agent Wade Douthit said Fields "was like a kid at Disney World" during a high school trip to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
Douthit read grand jury testimony from a high school classmate of Fields who said Fields appeared happy and made the remark, "This is where the magic happened."
The statement provoked audible gasps from the crowd that had packed into the Charlottesville courtroom.
The classmate said when Fields viewed the camp's gas chamber he said, "It's almost like you can still hear them screaming."
Douthit said the classmate was so disgusted by Fields' remarks he stopped associating with him.
During Fields' state trial and in their sentencing memo, his attorneys focused on his history of mental illness and traumatic childhood.
A psychologist testified that Fields had inexplicable volatile outbursts as a young child, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 6 and was later diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder.
In a sentencing memo, defense attorneys asked the judge to consider a more lenient sentence of "less than life" and argued that Fields, raised by a paraplegic single mother, suffered "trauma" knowing that his Jewish grandfather had slain his grandmother before taking his own life.
"No amount of punishment imposed on James can repair the damage he caused to dozens of innocent people. But this Court should find that retribution has limits," his attorneys wrote.
“He gets what he deserves,” said Rosia Parker, who witnessed the crime. “He deserved that and more. For him to ask for mercy, that right there, it didn’t resonate to me, like, Are you serious?”
The judge sentenced Fields to 28 life terms to be served concurrently for hate crimes leading to injuries and another life term for the hate crime resulting in the death of Heyer.
“Knowing that he won’t be out again to cause more harm to more people helps,” said Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro. “Knowing that a clear message has been sent hoping to prevent other deaths, that helps.”
Fields is also convicted of state charges, including first-degree murder, five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, three counts of malicious wounding, and one hit and run count for injuring dozens of others with his vehicle. He is set to be sentenced on those charges July 15, and a jury has already recommended life in prison plus 419 years.