CHARLOTTESVILLE — Two years before slamming his car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens more, James Alex Fields Jr. decided to stop taking medication prescribed for serious mental illness he was diagnosed with as a child, the jury tasked with determining his fate learned Monday.
The testimony of a forensic psychologist, provided alongside gripping accounts from Heyer’s mother, and three victims of the Aug. 12, 2017, car attack, all are now in the hands of the people who convicted the Ohio man of first-degree murder on Friday.
His lawyers argued Monday that Fields, now 21, was not well in the months leading up to the Unite the Right rally, a white nationalist gathering initially pitched as a protest against the planned removal of a Confederate statue from a downtown park.
They said last week that Fields was afraid for his life after attending the event, which police declared an unlawful assembly following an hour of pitched street violence that consumed the area not far from the spot where Heyer, 32, was struck.
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, told the jury weighing a sentence for her daughter’s killer that she does not hate Fields, and is leaving him in “the hands of justice.”
Bro likened the trauma she and her family members have suffered in the 15 months that followed the attack to surviving “an explosion” that has forever changed their lives.
“Heather was full of love, justice and fairness,” she said. “Mr. Fields tried to silence her. ... I refuse to let him.”
His lawyers on Monday raised questions about how Fields’ mental health factored into his decision-making that day.
A University of Virginia clinician who evaluated Fields determined that he is sane despite a long history of treatment for behavioral and personality disorders.
Dr. Daniel Murrie of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy testified that Fields was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizoid personality disorder at the ages of 6 and 14, respectively.
Murrie said Fields’ father — who died in a car crash before Fields was born — and a grandfather were also diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Murrie said Fields has a history of volatile outbursts and was hospitalized for treatment twice before he turned 10. He said Fields stopped taking medication when he was 18 so that he could join the U.S. Army.
Fields enlisted but never completed basic training after failing a physical fitness exam, according to court testimony Monday. He then moved back into his mother’s house. Murrie testified that Fields continued to show signs of violent and aggressive behavior, particularly toward his mom.
He did not continue taking medication until after he was jailed in Charlottesville.
“Insanity as a legal designation is very rare,” Murrie said. “It requires a serious mental illness where they do not understand the consequence of their actions or restrain their impulses. He did not meet the criteria for that.”
The jury also heard from several people present at the time of the attack.
Bro said the grief has prevented her from returning to her job as a government secretary, adding that she cannot bring herself to celebrate the upcoming Christmas holiday or enjoy old hobbies, such as reading.
She said she finds some solace in promoting the charitable foundation she started in her daughter’s name and speaking out against racial injustice, but wishes things were different.
“I would trade every bit of it just to have my daughter back,” she said.
Other victims of the attack told the jury Monday that they expect their emotional injuries and physical limitations will persist through the rest of their lives.
In a single day of deliberating capping two weeks of proceedings, the jury ultimately found that Fields acted with malice and intended to kill and harm the protesters.
Lunsford told the jury Monday that it should take his history of mental health issues into account before recommending his sentence.
“He did not come here in good mental health. There’s continuity there … with what happened on Aug. 12,” she said. “It’s an explanation — not an excuse.”
Lunsford said Fields showed remorse when he apologized to police officers after the fatal wreck and wept when he learned that someone died, but Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania urged the jury to consider the impact on the victims and a jailhouse phone call last year where Fields told his mother that Heyer’s death “didn’t f---ing mater” because of her political leanings.
“Despite what Mr. Fields may think, her death did matter,” Platania said.
The jury will reconvene Tuesday morning to complete its sentencing recommendation. Six of the 10 charges against him each qualify for a lifetime sentence.
Fields faces separate federal hate crime proceedings after the state trial concludes. Punishment for those crimes may invoke the death penalty if he is found guilty of those charges.