James Alex Fields Jr., 21, pleaded not guilty Thursday to dozens of federal hate crimes in connection with last summer’s car attack on people protesting a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
One of those hate crimes resulted in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, according to prosecutors, who say Fields deliberately plowed his Dodge Challenger into counterprotesters who were chanting and carrying signs promoting equality and protesting against racism at the Aug. 12 rally.
Fields, who appeared at the U.S. District Court in Charlottesville, is also charged with 28 counts of hate crime acts causing bodily injury and involving an attempt to kill.
He faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment or death.
At the hearing, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Hoppe asked him if he was being treated or had ever been treated for a mental illness.
Fields indicated yes and listed bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Brian McGinn, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia, told NPR via email.
The Justice Department said in a statement that Fields drove from his Ohio home last August and took part in the “Unite the Right” rally, where he “engaged in chants promoting or expressing white supremacist and other racist and anti-Semitic views.”
Then, according to the federal indictment returned last week, Fields got back in his car and drove to the intersection of Fourth and Market streets. He paused to observe the counterprotesters and then “rapidly accelerated, through a stop sign and across a raised pedestrian mall, and drove directly into the crowd,” the indictment states.
Crucial to the federal hate crime charges, the indictment alleges that Fields targeted his victims because of their “actual and perceived race, color, religion, and national origin.”
It says Fields had demonstrated a history of racism and “expressed and promoted his belief that white people are superior to other races and peoples” through his social media accounts.
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, was in the courtroom Thursday, reports The New York Times.
She told the newspaper that Fields showed barely any emotion and that when he announced his not-guilty plea, even though she had anticipated it, “it was still sort of a punch to the gut.”
Bro said she plans to be at every court appearance until the trial ends, even if it takes years.
“The wheels of justice turn slowly,” she told the Times, “but they do turn.”
McGinn said Fields’ next court appearance had not yet been scheduled.