CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – A judge here concluded Thursday that there is enough evidence to pursue a first-degree murder charge against the self-professed neo-Nazi accused of plowing his car into a crowd in August, killing one woman.
James Alex Fields Jr., 20, has been jailed in Charlottesville since his arrest during a rally of white supremacists on Aug. 12. Authorities say he rammed his car into another vehicle on purpose on a crowded street, killing counterprotester Heather Heyer 32, and injuring 35 other people.
The incident – captured on video and seen worldwide – occurred amid clashes involving hundreds of white supremacists and counterprotesters at a gathering billed by organizers as a "Unite the Right" rally, in the home town of the University of Virginia.
Heyer's death, which shocked the national conscience, climaxed a violent, daylong outpouring of racist hate that showed how emboldened white supremacist groups have become in the United States. Organizers said the rally was meant to protest the city's planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
During the Thursday court hearing, prosecutors played video showing Fields' Dodge Charger approach a few cars that had stopped in the street, back up quickly, then accelerate forward. On one video taken from a helicopter monitoring the crowds, the car can be seen smashing into a Toyota Camry and sending people flying.
The video prompted gasps and cries from supporters of Heyer who came to court.
At one point, defense attorney Denise Lunsford questioned Steven Young, a police detective, about Fields' statements after his arrest. She asked if her client had asked police: "Are they OK?"
Young said Fields was told that one person had died and said he appeared shocked.
"Did he sob and cry?" Lunsford asked.
"Yes," Young responded.
Fields, who traveled to Charlottesville from his home in Maumee, Ohio, has a long history of fascination and admiration for the racist ideology and militarism of Nazi Germany, according to acquaintances in Kentucky, where he grew up, and Ohio, where he moved as an adult.
The case against Fields will now go before a grand jury. In addition to first-degree murder, Fields faces charges of malicious wounding and several related offenses.