A 21-year-old right-wing extremist was found guilty Friday of murdering a protester at a chaotic “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, according to the Charlottesville Daily Progress, NBC News and the Washington Post.
Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when James Alex Fields Jr. deliberately rammed his car into a group of counter-protestors at the rally. CNN reports that his attorneys argued he panicked amid the chaos, fearing for his safety — a defense the jury rejected after less than a day of deliberations.
Prosecutors said Fields was deliberate and angry as he accelerated toward the group, smashing into pedestrians and a parked car and injuring dozens. The counter-protestors he attacked had not threatened him physically, according to the prosecution.
“This is not the face of someone who is scared,” Charlottesville Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina-Alice Antony said in court, according to the Post, referring to a close-up image of Fields before the crash.
“This is the face of anger, of hatred,” Antony said. “It’s the face of malice.”
Fields — whom his attorney reportedly conceded “holds extreme right-wing views,” and whom the Post described as “an avowed supporter of neo-Nazi belief” — traveled from Ohio to attend the rally in Charlottesville, organized in support of preserving Confederate memorials. The event drew open racists and anti-Semites, such as members of the Klu Klux Klan, among other radicals.
The two-day rally devolved into disarray and, eventually, deadly violence.
In addition to first-degree murder, Fields was also convicted of various charges related to injuring those near Heyer with his car, the Progress reports: five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit-and-run.
As the two sides had differed over Fields’ intent last year, the defense and prosecutors sharply divided over their descriptions of his state of mind.
Fields, his attorneys contended, was remorseful for what he had done and did not mean to murder anyone.
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Not so, said the prosecution. Three months before killing Heyer, he had shared a meme on Instagram showing someone slamming into a group of protestors with the caption “You Have the Right to Protest, But I’m Late for Work.”
“And when he passes that happy crowd in front of him on Fourth Street,” said prosecutor Antony, “those images pop into his head and he seizes on the opportunity to make his Instagram posts a reality.”
Fields faces multiple life sentences in prison when he returns to court to learn his fate on Monday, the Daily Progress reports. He will be tried again on federal hate crime charges, according to the New York Times. (Neither his attorneys nor prosecutors could immediately be reached for comment by PEOPLE.)
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Since Heyer’s death, her mother, Susan Bro, has become outspoken on her behalf. She co-founded the Heather Heyer Foundation.
“Before this, I was a government employee, so I kind of kept my opinions to myself a little bit,” Bro told the Post in August. Heather and I were definitely on the same page a lot politically, and when we weren’t, we would talk it out. Now people want my opinion, so fine, I have things to say.”
“The foundation has definitely been a key part of [recovering from Heyer’s death],” Bro told the paper.
She said it had brought her “a purpose to do good things in her name.”
“However, I’ve also insisted on staying in charge of the foundation because I don’t want this message to spin out of control. There are people who tried to deify Heather and make her some kind of saint and like she was a leader. She wasn’t,” Bro continued. “She wasn’t a leader. She was a supporter and ally and an advocate. I just feel it’s up to me to make sure the truth is told and make sure it doesn’t get out of control.”