There were tears, angry words and a life sentence in circuit court today, as the case of James Fields, Jr. came to a close. He was accused of first degree murder and multiple counts of malicious wounding after driving his car into a crowd of counter-protesters nearly two years ago.
James Fields' lawyers argued he was terrified by an angry crowd and was trying to escape when he plowed his car into more than 30 people after a white supremacist rally on August 12th, 2017, but the judge was not convinced. Judge Richard Moore had studied a video in which Fields sat in his car – two blocks from the crowd – revving his engine, backing up, then racing forward. Moore called it the most chilling and disturbing thing he had ever seen and scolded Fields saying “When you do things that are so bad, the community says you may not live among us.”
Before pronouncing sentence, the judge heard from some of Fields' victims. Many, like Bill Burke, are still dealing with physical injuries.
“I was diagnosed with a brain injury, PTSD, I forget a whole bunch of stuff," he explained. "I’ve got an arm injury that burns every single day, headaches.”
April Muniz said she was not struck by the car but witnessed the attack and now suffers the psychological consequences.
“Two years ago I was crumpled on the floor a lot, I was crying," she recalled. "I still do some of that. I just don’t do it every day. I still wake up screaming in the middle of the night. I have trouble with on-coming traffic like many of us do. I have trouble with loud noises.”
And Marcus Martin – a man who was caught in a still photograph, flying into the air after being hit -- said he was angry all the time – prone to violent outbursts over small matters. He stared at Fields and demanded the defendant look him in the eyes, but Fields looked down, showing no emotion.
The judge conceded Fields has psychiatric problems, but said that was no reason to disregard a jury’s recommendation that he be sentenced to life in prison plus 419 years. That sentence satisfied Susan Bro, who lost her daughter Heather Heyer, in the attack.
“I’m just relieved," Bro said with a smile. "I can’t say lighter somehow. I actually put on 20 pounds since the trial from the stress of it all, but I emotionally I feel a bit lighter.”
She vowed to move on, as did Star Peterson who suffered massive physical injuries but is now walking without a cane or crutches. She called on Charlottesville and the nation to address racism.
“We need to put a stop to racist policing. We badly need to fix public housing," she told reporters outside the courthouse. "We need to tear down all of the racist statues. I’ll quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.”
Constance Young, who was also injured, complained Fields should have been charged with domestic terrorism.
“White supremacists like James Field are much more of a threat to me and people like me than ISIS or any foreign terrorists.”
She had chided the judge for failing to allow the removal of confederate statues in Charlottesville and called on all white people to take a stand against racism everywhere. Bill Burke, a white man who – like Fields – came from Ohio, said he was more determined than ever to fight prejudice in America.
“Trump talks about making America great. To me it just looks like he’s upholding our terrible history, and it’s time for people to wake up. As a white guy I’m going to use my privilege to spread spread the word of love, and it’s really disgusting that I’ve been labeled a radical just because I want people to have the same rights I do as a white man in America.”
Fields had already been sentenced to life in prison on federal hate crime charges. There’s been no official announcement, but he is expected to serve his time in a federal prison.