Suspect in Charlottesville car attack faces first-degree murder charge, life in prison

The Ohio man accused of driving into a crowd protesting a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville is now facing life in prison after prosecutors upgraded his charges to first-degree murder.

Prosecutors presented surveillance video and other evidence against James Alex Fields during a preliminary hearing Thursday as they argued for an upgrade to the second-degree murder charge he previously faced in the Aug. 12 crash that left 32-year-old Heather Heyer dead and dozens injury.

The judge agreed to that and ruled there is probable cause to proceed with all charges against Fields, including nine felony counts.

Fields, 20, is accused of driving his speeding car into a group of counterprotesters the day of the “Unite the Right” rally that drew hundreds of white nationalists to the Virginia college town this summer. The attack came after the rally descended into chaos.

On Thursday, prosecutors played surveillance footage from a Virginia State Police helicopter that 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. Another surveillance video from a restaurant showed the car head slowly in the direction of the counterprotesters, who were not in view of the camera. The car reversed before speeding forward into the frame again.

FILE - In this Aug. 12, 2017 file photo, people fly into the air as a vehicle is driven into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. James Alex Fields Jr., the man accused of driving into the crowd demonstrating against a white nationalist protest, killing one person and injuring many more, has a preliminary court hearing Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. (Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via AP, File)

Fields is accused of driving into the crowd demonstrating against a white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Va.  (Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via AP, File)

Fields, of Maumee, Ohio, sat quietly in a striped jumpsuit with his hands cuffed during the hearing. He was photographed hours before the attack with a shield bearing the emblem of Vanguard America, one of the 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 Kentucky school for "deeply held, radical" convictions on race.

His attorney, Denise Lunsford, did not present evidence or make any arguments at the hearing, although she did cross-examine a Charlottesville detective prosecutors had called in as witness.

Lunsford asked Charlottesville Police Detective Steven Young 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 when 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.