Killer of Heather Heyer to plead guilty to hate crimes tied to Charlottesville riot

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(Reuters) – Self-described neo-Nazi James Fields, who was convicted of killing Heather Heyer by ramming his car into a crowd protesting white supremacist rallies in Virginia in 2017, was expected on Wednesday to plead guilty in his federal hate crimes case.

FILE PHOTO: A photograph of Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer is seen amongst flowers left at the scene of the car attack on a group of counter-protesters that took her life during the “Unite the Right” rally as people continue to react to the weekend violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 14, 2017. REUTERS/Justin Ide

Fields, 21, who previously pleaded not guilty to the federal charges, was scheduled for a change of plea hearing on Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville, according to a court filing.

He is already facing a sentence of life in prison after being found guilty of Heyer’s murder for smashing his car into a crowd of protesters the day after white supremacists marched with torches in the college town.

A conviction on the federal hate crime charges could result in the death penalty, while a plea deal could spare his life.

Fields pleaded not guilty last July to federal charges, including one count of a hate crime act resulting in death, for which he could receive the death penalty.

He was also charged with 28 counts of hate crime acts causing bodily injury and involving an attempt to kill, and one count of racially motivated violent interference with a federally protected activity.

It was not immediately clear which of the charges he would be pleading guilty to.

In December, a Virginia jury recommended that Fields spend the rest of his life in prison after finding him guilty of first-degree murder and nine other crimes for killing Heyer, 32, and injuring 19 people after the “Unite the Right” gathering in August 2017.

Fields’ formal sentencing on the state charges is scheduled for July 15, according to court records.

Fields, a resident of Maumee, Ohio, was photographed hours before the attack carrying a shield with the emblem of a far-right hate group. He has identified himself as a neo-Nazi.

Fields’ attorneys never disputed that he accelerated his Dodge Charger into a group of counter-protesters at the rally, sending bodies flying. The lawyers suggested he felt intimidated and acted to protect himself.

The event proved a critical moment in the rise of the “alt-right,” a loose alignment of fringe groups centered on white nationalism and emboldened by President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory.

Trump was criticized from the left and right for initially saying there were “fine people on both sides” of a dispute between neo-Nazis and their opponents. Subsequent alt-right gatherings failed to draw the crowds of size that assembled in Charlottesville.

Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Scott Malone, Bernadette Baum and Susan Thomas

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