Jury recommends life in prison for man who rammed crowd
By DENISE LAVOIE
AP Legal Affairs Writer
Tuesday, December 11
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — A jury Tuesday called for a sentence of life in prison plus 419 years for the Hitler admirer who killed a woman when he rammed his car into counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville two summers ago.
The decision capped a trial laced with survivors’ anguished testimony and details of the driver’s long history of mental illness.
James Alex Fields Jr., 21, stood stoically with his hands folded in front of him as he heard the jury’s recommendation.
It will be up to Judge Richard Moore to decide on the punishment at Fields’ sentencing, set for March 29. Judges in Virginia often go along with the jury’s recommendation. Under state law, they can impose a shorter sentence but not a longer one.
The jury called for a life sentence for first-degree murder in the killing of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and activist, and also asked for hundreds more years on nine counts involving injuries Fields caused to others and for leaving the scene of the crash.
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, said she was satisfied with the decision.
“The bottom line is justice has him where he needs to be,” Bro said. “My daughter is still not here and the other survivors still have their wounds to deal with, so we’ve all been damaged permanently, but we do survive. We do move forward. We don’t stay in that dark place.”
The jury deliberated for about four hours over two days before agreeing on a punishment.
Fields drove to Virginia from his home in Maumee, Ohio, to support the white nationalists at the “Unite the Right” rally on Aug. 12, 2017.
After police forced the crowds to disband because of violent clashes between white nationalists and anti-racism demonstrators, Fields spotted a large group of protesters marching and singing. He stopped his car, backed up, then sped forward into the crowd, according to testimony from witnesses and video surveillance shown to jurors.
Fields’ lawyer Denise Lunsford called him a “mentally compromised individual” and urged the jury to consider his long history of mental problems.
University of Virginia professor and psychologist Daniel Murrie told the jury that while Fields was not legally insane at the time of the attack, he had inexplicable outbursts as a child and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 6. He was later found to have schizoid personality disorder.
Murrie said Fields went off his psychiatric medication at 18 and built an isolated “lifestyle centered around being alone.”
A video of Fields shown to the jury during the first phase of the trial showed him sobbing and hyperventilating after he was told a woman had died and others were seriously injured.
The Unite the Right rally had been organized in part to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis and other white nationalists — emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump — streamed into the college town for one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists in a decade. Some dressed in battle gear.
Afterward, Trump inflamed tensions even further when he said “both sides” were to blame for the violence.
According to one of his former teachers, Fields was known in high school for being fascinated with Nazism and idolizing Adolf Hitler.
Jurors were shown a text message he sent to his mother days before the rally that included an image of the Nazi dictator. When his mother pleaded with him to be careful, he replied: “we’re not the one who need to be careful.”
Fields also faces federal hate-crime charges that could bring the death penalty. No trial date has been set.
Virginia city seeks healing after man’s murder conviction
By DENISE LAVOIE
AP Legal Affairs Writer
Sunday, December 9
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Civil rights activists in this Virginia city say they hope the first-degree-murder conviction of a man who drove into a group of counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in 2017 will help with healing their violence-scarred community.
In convicting James Alex Fields Jr. of first-degree murder, a state jury on Friday rejected defense arguments that the 21-year-old defendant had acted in self-defense during a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. Jurors also convicted Fields of eight other charges, including aggravated malicious wounding and hit and run.
The jury will reconvene Monday to recommend a sentence. Under Virginia law, jurors can recommend from 20 years to life in prison on the first-degree murder charge.
Fields is eligible for the death penalty if convicted of separate federal hate crime charges. No trial has been scheduled yet.
During trial, jurors heard that Fields drove to Virginia from his home in Maumee, Ohio, to support the white nationalists. As a large group of counterprotesters marched through Charlottesville singing and laughing, he stopped his car, backed up, then sped into the crowd, according to testimony from witnesses and video surveillance shown to jurors.
Prosecutors said Fields was angry after witnessing violent clashes between the two sides earlier in the day. The violence prompted police to shut down the rally before it even officially began.
Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, was killed, and nearly three dozen others were injured. The trial featured emotional testimony from survivors who described devastating injuries and long, complicated recoveries.
After the verdict was read, some of those who had been injured embraced Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro. She left the courthouse without commenting.
Charlottesville City Councilor Wes Bellamy said he hopes the verdict “allows our community to take another step toward healing and moving forward.”
Charlottesville civil rights activist Tanesha Hudson said she sees the guilty verdict as the city’s way of saying, “We will not tolerate this in our city.”
“We don’t stand for this type of hate,” she said.
White nationalist Richard Spencer, who had been scheduled to speak at the Unite the Right rally, described the verdict as a “miscarriage of justice.”
“I am sadly not shocked, but I am appalled by this,” he told The Associated Press of Field’s conviction. “He was treated as a terrorist from the get-go.”
Spencer popularized the term “alt-right” to describe a fringe movement loosely mixing white nationalism, anti-Semitism and other far-right extremist views. He said he doesn’t feel any personal responsibility for the violence.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “As a citizen, I have a right to protest. I have a right to speak. That is what I came to Charlottesville to do.”
The far-right rally had been organized in part to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis and other white nationalists — emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump — streamed into the college town for one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists in a decade.
According to one of his former teachers, Fields was known in high school for being fascinated with Nazism and idolizing Adolf Hitler. Jurors were shown a text message he sent to his mother days before the rally that included an image of the notorious German dictator.
During one of two recorded phone calls Fields made to his mother from jail in the months after he was arrested, he told her he had been mobbed “by a violent group of terrorists” at the rally. In another, Fields referred to the mother of the woman who was killed as a “communist” and “one of those anti-white supremacists.”
Prosecutors also showed jurors a meme Fields posted on Instagram three months before the rally in which bodies are shown being thrown into the air after a car hits a crowd of people identified as protesters. He posted the meme publicly to his Instagram page.
But Fields’ lawyers told the jury that he drove into the crowd on the day of the rally because he feared for his life and was “scared to death” by earlier violence he had witnessed. A video of Fields being interrogated after the crash showed him sobbing and hyperventilating after he was told a woman had died and others were seriously injured.
Wednesday Bowie, who was struck by Fields’ car and suffered a broken pelvis and other injuries, said she was gratified by the guilty verdict.
“This is the best I’ve been in a year and a half,” Bowie said.
Associated Press writers Mike Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland, and Tom Foreman Jr. in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.
Jury set to deliberate murder case in 2017 fatal car ramming
By DENISE LAVOIE
AP Legal Affairs Writer
Thursday, December 6
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — A prosecutor told a jury Thursday that James Alex Fields Jr. had hate and violence in his mind when he deliberately drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally, killing one woman, injuring dozens and leaving bodies strewn on the ground.
As prosecutors urged jurors to find Fields guilty of first-degree murder and other felonies for the deadly August 2017 crash, his lawyers made a final attempt to convince them that Fields had plowed into the crowd out of fear.
The jury is scheduled to begin deliberating the case Friday morning.
During closing arguments Thursday, prosecutors portrayed Fields as a white nationalist who became angry after police forced crowds at the rally to disband. The police action followed violent clashes between the white nationalists who descended on Charlottesville to protest plans to remove a statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and counterdemonstrators who showed up to oppose the white nationalists.
Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina-Alice Antony reminded the jurors about a text message sent by Fields the day before the rally that included an image of Adolf Hitler. Fields sent the text to his mother in response to her plea for him to be careful. Fields wrote: ‘we’re not the one (sic) who need to be careful,” accompanied by Hitler’s image.
Antony also repeatedly reminded the jurors about a meme Fields posted on Instagram three months before the crash. The image shows bodies tossed into the air after a car plows into a crowd identified as “protesters.”
“What we have is a man who had a decision, and he decides to turn his Instagram post into reality,” she said.
Defense attorney Denise Lunsford urged the jury to consider the chaos earlier that day, when street fights broke out between the two groups and tear gas was thrown.
Lunsford said Fields had urine thrown at him, had been yelled at by counterprotesters and found himself alone and unprotected as he attempted to leave Charlottesville and drive back to his home in Maumee, Ohio. She said he saw a large crowd down the street surrounding two other cars and feared he would be attacked.
“Look at the circumstances as they appeared to him,” Lunsford said.
“He says he felt he was in danger, there were people coming at him.”
Antony told the jury no one was near Fields’ car when he drove into the crowd. She said he idled in his car for more than a minute before backing up, then speeding into the crowd.
“He gets toward that group and he goes for them,” she said.
Fields, 21, faces charges of first-degree murder in the death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and civil rights activist who was killed. He also faces five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, three counts of malicious wounding and a count of leaving the scene of an accident.
Lunsford urged the jury to find Fields guilty of “no more than” the lesser charges of manslaughter in Heyer’s death and unlawful wounding in the injuries he caused to others.
In testimony earlier Thursday, a man who was with Fields shortly before the crash said he appeared calm and “maybe a little bit scared.”
Joshua Matthews said he met Fields in a Charlottesville park where white nationalists had gathered. After police declared an “unlawful assembly,” Fields, Matthews and two other people decided to walk together “as it would probably be more safe,” Matthews said.
He said while they were walking, a group of “antifas” — short for anti-fascists — yelled at them. He said Fields yelled something back, although he said he couldn’t remember what Fields said.
The defense also called to the stand a left-wing defense group member who claimed in an earlier social media post that he had scared Fields away from a park where counterprotesters had gathered about an hour before Fields plowed his car into the crowd.
Dwayne Dixon testified that he saw a gray “muscle car” drive by several times. He said he yelled “Get the (expletive) out of here” at the car while wearing his gun slung over his shoulder. He testified that he could not see the driver because the car had tinted windows. Dixon has claimed previously that he used his gun to scare off a man he believes was Fields.
Dixon said he believes that was about 30 minutes to an hour before Fields slammed into the group with his car.
Nominating a crony, loyalist or old buddy for attorney general is a US presidential tradition
Updated December 7, 2018
Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, Amherst College
Austin Sarat does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Amherst College provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
With President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would nominate former Attorney General William P. Barr to fill the position again, Trump chose a prominent Republican lawyer with extensive government experience to run the Justice Department.
Barr has publicly supported some of Trump’s criticisms of the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. It’s not known how Barr would reflect those positions in his interactions with the investigation.
But when Donald Trump announced Jeff Sessions’s nomination as his attorney general, the position was seen as a reward for Sessions’s early endorsement of the president’s 2016 campaign. And the president wanted loyalty in return.
“The only reason I gave him the job,” Trump said, “was because I felt loyalty. He was an original supporter. He was on the campaign.”
Many people predicted that Trump indeed would have a loyal foot soldier as head of the Justice Department.
But the president’s wish was not realized. Feeling betrayed when Sessions recused himself from the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump turned Sessions into a regular target for his Twitter assaults.
Trump ended their fraught relationship by asking for Sessions to resign after the 2018 midterm election and replacing him with Matthew Whitaker. Whitaker is known as a critic of the Mueller investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia.
The Whitaker appointment provoked questions among Trump critics, including George Conway, husband of the president’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, about its constitutionality and its wisdom.
However, others welcomed the alliance between Trump and Whitaker. Margot Cleveland, an adjunct law professor at the University of Notre Dame, argued that “there is nothing nefarious about the (acting) attorney general loyally serving the president of the United States.”
For me as a legal scholar who has studied controversies surrounding the role of prosecutors and prosecutorial decisions, all of this has a familiar ring.
Indeed, throughout American history, there have been different visions of the role of the attorney general and his or her relationship to the president.
The office of attorney general is not mentioned in the Constitution. It was created when the First Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789.
That act called for the appointment of a person “learned in the law, to act as attorney general for the United States.” It said that the attorney general’s duty “shall be to prosecute and conduct all suits in the Supreme Court in which the United States shall be concerned, and to give his advice and opinion upon questions of law when required by the President of the United States, or when requested by the heads of any of the departments.”
The act gave the attorney general limited duties relating strictly to matters of law. In fact, the attorney general was to be a part-time official, carrying out quasi-judicial functions, but responsible to the president who appointed him.
Two days after the Judiciary Act became law, George Washington appointed Edmund Jennings Randolph to be the first attorney general of the United States.
Randolph had been a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and Virginia’s attorney general. He was “learned in the law,” but he was also Washington’s confidante and close political ally, having served as the general’s chief of staff and personal secretary in 1775.
During Randolph’s term as attorney general, Washington relied on him for support on matters that went well beyond the formal duties of his office. In one such instance, Randolph helped Washington handle foreign relations with France and Great Britain and, in others, advised him on his dealings with Congress.
Thus, “from the beginning,” writes law professor Susan Low Bloch, “there were questions about whom the attorney general represented, who should and would control the incumbent attorney general, and what it means to represent the ‘interests of the United States.‘”
Carving out a role
As other scholars have noted, the role of the attorney general has been variously defined by the occupants of that office.
Some have followed in Randolph’s footsteps, serving as close political allies of the president. Others have seen themselves as different from the rest of the president’s Cabinet and kept their distance from the president. They acted primarily as defenders of the rule of law.
Examples of the first type from the early years of the country include President Andrew Jackson’s attorney general, Roger Taney, who worked hand-in-hand with Jackson to end funding for the Bank of the United States.
Jackson subsequently nominated Taney to the Supreme Court, where he wrote the decision in the infamous Dred Scott case.
In the 20th century, President Franklin Roosevelt’s attorneys general regularly helped him in political battles. Some of those battles involved the Justice Department and some did not.
For example, Robert Jackson, who served as FDR’s attorney general in 1940 and 1941 before being elevated to the Supreme Court, played a key role in the effort to circumvent the Neutrality Act in order to provide war equipment to Great Britain before America’s entrance into World War II.
Other close political allies of the president who appointed them include Robert Kennedy, who was appointed at age 35 by his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and widely criticized as unqualified for the job. President Reagan’s second attorney general, Edwin Meese, was a longtime friend of Reagan’s.
So common is this tendency to appoint friends and supporters to be attorneys general that, since FDR, many presidents have chosen their campaign manager or their party’s national chairperson to be attorney general of the United States. Examples include J. Howard McGrath, who served under President Truman, and Herbert Brownell, attorney general under President Eisenhower.
Attorneys general who have tried to eschew a clearly political role and be bureaucratic servants of the rule of law include, in the early 19th century, William Wirt.
Wirt was attorney general from 1817-1829 under Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. He insisted that the attorney general should not be drawn into partisan activities and should adhere to what he called “the strict limits prescribed for… [that office] by law.’”
Twentieth-century exemplars of this more independent role include Calvin Coolidge’s attorney general, Harlan Fiske Stone, and Edward Levi, who served under President Gerald Ford.
Both of them came to office in the wake of scandals. Stone took office after the Teapot Dome scandal and Levi after Watergate. Each restored integrity to the Justice Department by instituting new guidelines designed to limit political interference in its work.
Throughout American history, when presidents have appointed political cronies to be attorney general, they were looking for people only to help them pursue a policy agenda. President Nixon’s efforts to enlist Attorney General John Mitchell in the Watergate cover-up and get one of Mitchell’s successors, Elliot Richardson, to fire the Watergate special prosecutor stand out as important, but rare, exceptions.
Other presidents have not expected or asked their attorneys general to shut down investigations or protect them from possible criminal liability.
But that is exactly what Trump’s vision of the attorney general’s role seemed to entail. Like Nixon, he wanted more than a political ally. What he wanted from his attorney general posed a serious threat to the rule of law. With his appointment of Barr, perhaps that will change.