US white supremacist pleads guilty to hate crimes in deadly car attack

In this Aug. 12, 2017 file photo, people fly into the air as a vehicle is driven into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via AP, File)
Updated 28 March 2019
0

US white supremacist pleads guilty to hate crimes in deadly car attack

  • James Alex Fields Jr. admitted intentionally plowed his speeding car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters, killing a woman and injuring dozens.
  • With Fields' guilty plea, prosecutors may not seek the death penalty against him

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia: In a case that stirred racial tensions across the country, a self-avowed white supremacist pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal hate crime charges in a deadly attack at a white nationalist rally in Virginia, admitting that he intentionally plowed his speeding car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters, killing a woman and injuring dozens.
James Alex Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio, pleaded guilty to 29 of 30 federal charges stemming from the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017.
Under a plea agreement, federal prosecutors will not seek the death penalty against Fields and will dismiss the one count that carried death as a possible punishment. The charges he pleaded guilty to call for life in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.
Fields appeared stoic, with his hands folded in front of him for much of the hearing. He repeatedly responded “yes, sir,” when US District Judge Michael Urbanski asked him if he was pleading guilty knowingly and voluntarily.
Under a “statement of facts,” Fields admitted that he “expressed and promoted” white supremacist ideology through his social media accounts and engaged in white supremacist chants during the rally in Charlottesville. He also admitted driving his car into the ethnically diverse crowd of anti-racism protesters because of their race, color, religion or national origin.
Urbanski scheduled sentencing for July 3.
Fields, 21, was convicted in December in a Virginia court of first-degree murder and other state charges for killing anti-racism activist Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others who were protesting against the white nationalists.
The rally drew hundreds of white nationalists to Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds of counterprotesters demonstrated against the white nationalists.
President Donald Trump sparked a national uproar when he blamed the violence at the rally on “both sides,” a statement critics saw as a refusal to condemn racism.
After Tuesday’s hearing, US Attorney Thomas Cullen said he hoped the plea agreement would help the victims move on with their lives.
“The defendant’s hate-inspired act of domestic terrorism not only devastated Heather Heyer’s wonderful family and the 28 peaceful protesters ... but it also left an indelible mark on the city of Charlottesville, our state and our country,” Cullen said.
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, said she and Heyer’s father agreed they did not want prosecutors to seek the death penalty.
“There’s no point in killing him,” she said. “It would not bring back Heather.”
Cullen said prosecutors had been in talks with Fields’ lawyers for months about a potential plea agreement, but did not seek to finalize a deal until US Attorney General William Barr last week authorized him not to seek the death penalty if Fields agreed to plead to 29 counts.
The car attack by Fields came after violent brawling between the two sides prompted police to disband the crowds.
During his state trial, prosecutors said Fields — who described himself on social media as an admirer of Adolf Hitler — drove his car into the crowd because he was angry after witnessing earlier clashes between the white nationalists and the counterprotesters.
The jury rejected a claim by Fields’ lawyers that he acted in self-defense because he feared for his life after witnessing the earlier violence.
During the plea hearing Wednesday, Fields — responding to questions from the judge — said he has been treated for mental health issues since he was 6. He said he is currently on medication for bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, schizoid disorder, explosive onset disorder and ADHD.
More than 30 people were hurt in the car attack. Some who received life-altering injuries described them in anguished detail during the state trial.
Jurors in Fields’ state trial recommended a life sentence plus 419 years, although a judge still has to decide on the punishment. Sentencing is scheduled for July 15.
A reporter asked Bro if she thought her daughter’s death had served some purpose, such as opening a discussion of race relations. She answered: “Sadly, it took a white girl dying before anyone paid attention to civil rights around here ... Heather’s death is at least a catalyst for change.”
Bro said she wouldn’t have chosen that catalyst and added, “I wish we would have woken up sooner.”


MH17 crash probe set to name suspects

A pro-Russian separatist stands at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo) in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 18, 2014. (REUTERS)
Updated 39 min 29 sec ago
0

MH17 crash probe set to name suspects

  • Since 2014, some 13,000 people have been killed in the war in the east, which erupted after a popular uprising ousted Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president and Russia annexed Crimea

THE HAGUE: International investigators are on Wednesday expected to announce charges against several suspects in the shooting down of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine five years ago in an attack which killed all 298 people on board.
The Dutch-led probe has said it will first inform families, and then hold a press conference to unveil “developments in the criminal investigation” into the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777.
The breakthrough comes nearly a year after the investigators said that the BUK missile which hit the plane had originated from a Russian military brigade based in the southwestern city of Kursk.
The airliner traveling between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur was torn apart in mid-air on July 17, 2014 over territory in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists.
Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister Olena Zerkal told Interfax-Ukraine news agency on Tuesday that four people would be named over MH17, including senior Russian army officers.
“The names will be announced. Charges will be brought, Zerkal said, adding that a Dutch court would then “start working to consider this case.”
Zerkal added that the transfer of weapons like the BUK anti-aircraft missile system “is impossible without the (Russian) top brass’s permission” and said others would have been involved beyond those being charged.

The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) probing the attack — which includes Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine — has declined to confirm that it will announce charges.
The Netherlands and Australia said last May that they formally “hold Russia responsible” for the disaster, after the findings on the origin of the missile were announced. Of the passengers who died, 196 were Dutch and 38 were Australian.
Moscow has vehemently denied all involvement.
Dutch broadcaster RTL, quoting anonymous sources, said the suspects could be tried in absentia as Russia does not extradite its nationals for prosecution.
“I expect there will be important new information. That means the inquiry is advancing,” Piet Ploeg, president of a Dutch victims’ association who lost three family members on MH17, was quoted as saying by broadcaster NOS on Friday.
“It’s the first step to a trial.”
Investigative website Bellingcat said separately it will also name “individuals linked to the downing of MH17” on Wednesday. It said its reporting was “totally independent and separate from the JIT’s investigation.”

The JIT said last year that MH17 was shot down by a BUK missile from the 53rd anti-aircraft brigade based in Kursk, but that they were still searching for suspects.
They showed videos and animation of the BUK launcher as part of a Russian military convoy, using video clips found on social media and then checked against Google Maps, as it traveled from Kursk to eastern Ukraine.
Investigators said they had also identified a ‘fingerprint’ of seven identifying features that were unique to the BUK including a military number on the launcher.
Russia insisted last year that the missile was fired by Kiev’s forces, adding that it was sent to Ukraine in the Soviet era and had not been returned to Russia.
The Netherlands said it would study the information but added that details previously provided by Russia — such as the alleged presence of a Ukrainian jet near the airliner on radar images — were incorrect.
Ties between Moscow and The Hague were further strained last year when the Dutch expelled four alleged Russian spies for trying to hack into the Dutch-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The war in eastern Ukraine and the MH17 disaster continue to plague relations between Russia and the West.
Since 2014, some 13,000 people have been killed in the war in the east, which erupted after a popular uprising ousted Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president and Russia annexed Crimea.
Kiev and its Western backers accuse Russia of funnelling troops and arms to back the separatists. Moscow has denied the claims despite evidence to the contrary.