Associated Press

Dec 15, 10:21 AM EST

Man accused of ramming car into crowd protesting against white nationalists in Virginia faces new charge of first-degree murder



CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) -- The man accused of driving into a crowd protesting a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville faces a new charge of first-degree murder after a court hearing Thursday in which prosecutors presented surveillance video and other evidence against him.

Prosecutors announced at the start of a preliminary hearing for James Alex Fields that they were seeking to upgrade the second-degree murder charge he previously faced in the Aug. 12 collision in Charlottesville that left 32-year-old Heather Heyer dead and dozens injured. The judge agreed to that and ruled there is probable cause for all charges against Fields, including nine lesser felony counts, to proceed.

Fields' case will now be presented to a grand jury for an indictment.

Authorities say the 20-year-old, described by a former teacher as having a keen interest in Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler, drove his speeding car into a group of counterprotesters the day of the "Unite the Right" rally that drew hundreds of white nationalist from around the country. The attack came after the rally in this Virginia college town had descended into chaos - with violent brawling between attendees and counterdemonstrators - and authorities had forced the crowd to disband.

Surveillance footage from a Virginia State Police helicopter, played by prosecutors in court, captured the moment of impact by the car and the cursing of the startled troopers on board. The video then showed the car as it reversed, drove away and eventually pulled over. The helicopter had been monitoring the violence, and prosecutors questioned Charlottesville Police Detective Steven Young about the video as it played.

Another surveillance video from a restaurant showed the car head slowly in what Young testified was the direction of the counterprotesters, who were not in view of the camera. The car reversed before speeding forward into the frame again.

After that footage, a man in the crowd shouted an expletive and cried out, "Take me out." He and others left the courtroom.

Fields, of Maumee, Ohio, sat quietly in a striped jumpsuit with his hands cuffed during the hearing.

His attorney Denise Lunsford did not present evidence or make any arguments at the hearing, although she did cross-examine the detective.

Fields was photographed hours before the attack with a shield bearing the emblem of Vanguard America, one of the hate groups that took part in the rally, although the group denied any association with him.

A former teacher, Derek Weimer, has said Fields was fascinated in high school with Nazism, idolized Adolf Hitler, and had been singled out by officials at his Union, Kentucky, school for "deeply held, radical" convictions on race.

During her cross-examination of Young, Lunsford asked if searches of Fields' computer, phone or social media revealed any evidence that he was part of Vanguard America or any other white nationalist group. Young said, "No."

Young also testified that he was among the first officers to respond to the scene where Fields pulled over. No weapon was found in the car, he said.

Lunsford asked the detective what Fields said as he was being detained.

Fields said he was sorry and asked if people were OK, according to Young. When Fields was told someone had died, he appeared shocked and sobbed, Young said.

Young said authorities had identified 36 victims of the car attack, including Heyer - a number higher than officials have previously given. Some have significant injuries and now use wheelchairs, Young said.

Fields would have faced between five to 40 years in prison for a second-degree murder conviction. First-degree murder carries a penalty of 20 years to life in prison.

Charlottesville General District Court Judge Robert Downer Jr. also presided over preliminary hearings Thursday for three other defendants. Charged in cases related to the August rally are Richard Preston, who is accused of firing a gun, and Jacob Goodwin and Alex Ramos, who are accused in an attack on a man in a parking garage that was captured in photos and video that went viral.

The judge certified the charges against all three men. All those cases will also head to a grand jury.

Jason Kessler, the main organizer of the Unite the Right rally, was in court to watch the proceedings. When he arrived Thursday, a small crowd of angry protesters outside the courthouse chanted, "Blood on your hands."

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