AP NEWS

Man convicted in Charlottesville attack plans to change plea

March 27, 2019
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FILE - This undated file photo provided by the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail shows James Alex Fields Jr. Fields who was convicted in a deadly car attack on a crowd of counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in Virginia is expected to change his plea to federal hate crime charges. An online court docket updated late Tuesday, March 26, 2019, says Fields is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville on Wednesday for a change-of-plea hearing. (Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail via AP, File)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — A man convicted in a deadly car attack on a crowd of counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in Virginia is expected to change his plea to federal hate crime charges Wednesday.

James Alex Fields Jr., of Maumee, Ohio, was convicted in state court in December in the death of anti-racism activist Heather Heyer and for injuring dozens more.

Fields separately pleaded not guilty to 30 federal hate crime charges in July. An online court docket updated late Tuesday says Fields is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville Wednesday for a change-of-plea hearing.

One of the charges carries the death penalty, although prosecutors had not yet announced whether they planned to seek that punishment.

It’s unclear what Fields’ change of plea will include. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said prosecutors would have no comment until after Wednesday’s hearing. Attorneys for Fields did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The “Unite the Right” rally on Aug. 12, 2017, drew hundreds of white nationalists to Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds more turned out to protest against the white nationalists.

The car attack came after violent brawling between the two sides prompted police to disband the crowds.

During his state trial, prosecutors said Fields — described by a former teacher as an admirer of Adolf Hitler — drove his car directly into a crowd of counterprotesters because he was angry after witnessing earlier clashes between the two groups. The jury rejected the defense claim that Fields acted in self-defense because he feared for his life after witnessing the earlier violence. Jurors recommended a life sentence plus 419 years, although a judge still has to decide on the punishment. Sentencing is scheduled for July 15.

The federal indictment against Fields brought charges under two hate crime statutes, including the one under which Dylann Roof was prosecuted for the 2015 killings of nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Twenty-nine of the counts were brought under that statute, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

A single count was brought under a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. That charge accused Fields of racially motivated violent interference with a federally protected activity — in this case, the use of the public streets and sidewalks of Charlottesville. That charge carries a possible death penalty.

President Donald Trump sparked an uproar when he blamed the violence at the rally on “both sides.”