Sentencing looms in Charlottesville attack; man seeks mercy

National / World

FILE – This undated file photo provided by the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail shows James Alex Fields Jr. A sentencing hearing has been moved up for the self-avowed white supremacist convicted of federal hate crimes for plowing his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters at a 2017 white nationalist rally in Virginia. Fields was originally scheduled to be sentenced July 3, 2019. A notice filed in court says the hearing has been moved to June 28. (Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail via AP, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The avowed white supremacist who plowed his car into counterdemonstrators opposing a white nationalist rally in Virginia two years ago, killing one person and injuring dozens, has asked a judge for mercy and a sentence shorter than life in prison.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA – AUGUST 12: The car that allegedly plowed through a crowd of protestors marching through a downtown shopping district is seen after the vehicle was stopped by police several blocks away August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Lawyers for James Alex Fields Jr., 22, said in a sentencing memo submitted in court documents Friday that the defendant should not spend his entire life in prison because of his age, a traumatic childhood and a history of mental illness. Fields pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes in March and is set to be sentenced on June 28.

“No amount of punishment imposed on James can repair the damage he caused to dozens of innocent people. But this Court should find that retribution has limits,” his attorneys wrote.

But prosecutors countered that the avowed anti-Semite and Adolf Hitler admirer has shown no remorse since he drove the car into the counterdemonstrators on Aug. 12, 2017, killing anti-racism activist Heather Heyer and injuring others protesting against the white nationalists.

The attorneys for Fields said that giving him something less than a life sentence would be akin to an “expression of mercy” and a “conviction that no individual is wholly defined by their worst moments.”

But prosecutors said Friday that Fields deserves a life sentence, adding that would help deter others from committing “similar acts of domestic terrorism.”

White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the “alt-right” exchange vollys of pepper spray with counter-protesters as they enter Emancipation Park during the “Unite the Right” rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The dueling memos were filed week as the federal sentencing looms on Friday.

Fields’ case stirred racial tensions around the country. Fields pleaded in March to federal hate crime charges and admitted that he intentionally plowed his speeding car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters, killing a woman and injuring dozens.

Under a plea deal, federal prosecutors agreed not to pursue the death penalty against Fields. The charges he pleaded guilty to call for life in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.

Fields 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 others who were protesting against the white nationalists. Sentencing on the state charges is scheduled for next month.

The rally in 2017 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.

In Friday’s memo, Fields’ attorneys highlighted his difficult upbringing and history of mental illness, but many of the details were redacted from public viewing. He was raised by a paraplegic single mother and suffered “trauma” by growing up knowing that his Jewish grandfather had murdered his grandmother before committing suicide, his lawyers said.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA – AUGUST 12: Rescue workers and medics tend to many people who were injured when a car plowed through a crowd of anti-facist counter-demonstrators marching through the downtown shopping district August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Prosecutors focused on years of documented racist and anti-Semitic behavior by Fields, which they said included keeping a picture of Adolf Hitler on his bedside table. They also said in court documents that he was recorded on a jail phone call making disparaging remarks about Heyer’s mother as recently as last month.

Prosecutors also said that while Fields has a history of mental illness issues, it doesn’t excuse his behavior in a way that would require a lenient sentence.

“Any mental health concerns raised by the defendant do not overcome the defendant’s demonstrated lack of remorse and his prior history of substantial racial animus,” prosecutors wrote.

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