Man Accused of Charlottesville Attack Charged With 1st-Degree Murder

The 20-year-old man also faces charges including malicious wounding and felonious assault

The man accused of ramming a car into a crowd of people protesting a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, this summer now faces a first-degree murder charge. 

The charges against James Alex Fields Jr. were upgraded in court Thursday afternoon. Fields previously was charged with second-degree murder in the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer. 

Fields, a 20-year-old from Maumee, Ohio -- described as having a keen interest in Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler -- also faces charges including malicious wounding and felonious assault for the crash Aug. 12 that killed Heyer and injured dozens of others.

Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, was set to see for the first time the man accused of killing her daughter.

The crash occurred during a weekend of clashes between white nationalists and counterprotesters that rocked the Virginia college town and renewed national debate over what to do with symbols of the Confederacy. 

Citing intense media coverage and public interest surrounding the case, a judge moved the hearing from Charlottesville General District Court to a circuit courthouse, writing in the order that "no outbursts, gestures, comments or other disruptive behavior" would be tolerated. 

Despite a quiet scene outside the courtroom in Charlottesville, street traffic around the courthouse was closed Thursday afternoon, and officers were posted around the premises, including an officer with a gun on a rooftop.

The preliminary hearing was to establish whether prosecutors had enough evidence to seek an indictment. Neither the commonwealth's attorney's office nor Fields' attorney responded to questions from The Associated Press ahead of the hearing.

Fields has been in custody since the rally and so far has made only brief court appearances by video link. His attorney, Denise Lunsford, has not spoken publicly about the case and has declined to make Fields available for an interview. 

Heyer, the 32-year-old woman who was killed by the crash, was a paralegal who worked at a law firm in Charlottesville. She attended the rally with friend Marissa Blair to march as counterprotesters against white nationalists.

“I just smile when I think about Heather,” Blair said earlier this year. "She always spoke with so much conviction, and she stood up for what she believed in, and she liked to make you laugh, and she didn't care what she said. It was Heather. She cared about people.”

After several smaller rallies, hundreds of white nationalists and counter-protesters converged in downtown Charlottesville on Aug. 12.

Charlottesville became a target for white nationalists after its city council voted to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. The rally by a loosely connected mix of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists was the largest gathering of such groups in a decade.

Fighting broke out before the event officially began and the brawling went on for around an hour until an unlawful assembly was declared and the crowd was forced to disband. 

Later, as counterdemonstrators were peacefully marching through downtown, the car barreled into the crowd. Video of the crash showed the car reversing and hitting more people amid a screech of tires.

The same day, a Virginia State Police helicopter deployed in the large-scale police response to the violence also crashed, killing two troopers on board. 

Fields was photographed hours before the attack with a shield bearing the emblem of Vanguard America, one of the hate groups that took part in the rally, although the group denied any association with him. A former teacher, Derek Weimer, has said Fields was fascinated in high school with Nazism, idolized Adolf Hitler, and had been singled out by officials at his Union, Kentucky, high school for "deeply held, radical" convictions on race. Fields had recently moved to Ohio from Kentucky, where he grew up. 

Fields' mother, Samantha Bloom, told The Associated Press on the evening of the rally that she knew her son was attending an event in Virginia but didn't know it was a white supremacist rally. 

Marcus Martin, who was hit and upended by the car as it plowed through the crowd, said he planned to attend Thursday's hearing. 

Martin's leg was broken in the attack, and his body was captured in a photograph as he tumbled over the car. 

Martin, who had been marching with his fiancee and Heyer, a friend of theirs, said he's been improving physically but "living every day just trying to forget." 

"I just want to stand and ask him, 'Why did you do that? What made you do that?'" Martin said.

Prosecutors are set to present their case against Fields to a grand jury of the Charlottesville Circuit Court on Monday, Dec. 18 at 9:30 a.m. 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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