An Ohio man pleaded not guilty to federal hate crime charges Thursday in a deadly car attack on a crowd of protesters opposing a white nationalist rally in Virginia.
James Alex Fields Jr. entered the plea during his initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville after being charged last week with 30 federal crimes in the Aug. 12 violence that killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injured dozens more. He also is charged under Virginia law with murder and other crimes.
Fields, of Maumee, Ohio, wore a gray striped jumpsuit and sat quietly, giving brief answers to the judge’s questions. He entered the courtroom wearing handcuffs and shackles. The cuffs were removed when he came in, then re-fastened when he left. His attorneys made no request for bail.
He told U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Hoppe that he is being treated for bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression and ADHD, and is taking medication. But he also said the drugs do not impair his ability to understand the charges against him.
Hoppe said Fields was qualified to be represented by a federal public defender and appointed legal counsel for him.
The 21-year-old defendant said he has a high school education and has worked as a security guard.
Some survivors of the attack were among the dozens of people in the courtroom. Also present was Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro.
Talking with news reporters outside the courthouse, Bro said she expected a not-guilty plea at this stage of the case, but added she still “felt a little punched in the gut.”
She also said she was a bit surprised that Fields’ voice sounded “bold.”
“I just somehow expected him to sound more timid and abashed, but he didn’t sound like it at all,” Bro said.
The “Unite the Right” rally drew hundreds of white nationalists to the college town, where officials planned to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds more came out to protest against the white nationalists.
The car attack came after vicious brawling broke out between white nationalists and counterdemonstrators and authorities forced the crowd to disband.
Prosecutors allege that after the crowd broke up, Fields drove his car toward the area where a racially diverse group of people had gathered to protest the rally. They say he rapidly accelerated his gray Dodge Challenger into the crowd. The car then reversed and fled.
Fields, who has been described by authorities and others who knew him as an admirer of Adolf Hitler, was arrested a relatively short while later. He has been in custody since the attack.
According to an indictment, Fields expressed white supremacist views on social media ahead of the rally, such as support for Hitler’s policies, including the Holocaust.
As he prepared to leave for Charlottesville, a family member sent him a text message urging him to be careful and Fields replied, “We’re not the ones who need to be careful,” attaching an image of Hitler, the indictment said.
The morning of the rally, Fields engaged in chants promoting or expressing white supremacist and other racist views, according to the indictment.
One of the federal charges Fields faces carries the death penalty, although prosecutors have not decided yet whether they will seek that punishment.
The local commonwealth’s attorney whose office is prosecuting the state-level charges has said the federal indictment will have no effect on that pending case. Fields is set to face trial on those charges later this year.