Charlottesville Suspect Denied Bail After First Court Appearance

Aug 14, 2017
Originally published on August 14, 2017 8:15 pm
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President Trump gave a stronger condemnation today of the far-right groups that rallied in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend, prompting a violent and deadly clash. Shortly after a car rammed into a group of counter-protesters on Saturday, killing one woman and injuring at least 19 others, President Trump criticized violence on many sides. Well, today Trump had a more pointed statement.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.

SIEGEL: Trump says those responsible must be held to account, and he noted that a federal civil rights probe is underway. We'll talk about what that means in a moment. But first, the man accused in that fatal car crash is facing state charges, and NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now from the Charlottesville Bureau of member station WVTF.

Debbie, you were there today for the first court appearance by James Alex Fields Jr., the man accused of ramming his car into the crowd of counter-protesters on Saturday. What happened in court?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Well, he appeared by video. He was in the Charlottesville jail, dressed in his striped prison jumpsuit. Judge Robert Downer went through his charges, including second-degree murder, malicious wounding and hit and run. As we said, he's accused of intentionally, you know, driving his car through this group of counter-protesters. They were walking downtown, having left a park where things had gotten tense. And protesters and the white nationalists there for a rally had begun to fight, and police had broken it up.

Now, during the hearing today, Fields didn't say much. He looked down a lot. He would look up at the camera and answer the judge with very, you know, one-word answers - yes, sir; no, sir. He said he could not afford his own lawyer, so the court appointed him one. The judge said the public defender was not in a position to help in this case because someone from that office was actually involved in the crash.

The judge asked Fields, who is from Ohio, if he had any ties to the local area. And when Fields said no, the judge said then he would remain in jail with no bond and has set another hearing for later this month.

SIEGEL: What do we know about Fields?

ELLIOTT: You know, he was pictured at the rally with a shield that was marked with a fascist symbol before the crash happened. We know he grew up in Kentucky but has been living in Ohio. He said he's 20 years old. His high school teacher - one of his high school teachers has said he was fascinated with Nazi Germany and had very, quote, "deeply held radical convictions on race."

It's a little fuzzy right now whether he was affiliated with any particular group, and police records have just come out today from Kentucky that indicate he had been previously accused of beating his mother and threatening her with a knife. Those records show he told police at the time that he was on medication to control his temper, so those - you know, that information now part of a broader investigation into who he is.

SIEGEL: Debbie, Charlottesville, Va., is a - typically a very mellow, lovely college town home to the University of Virginia. This was a very chaotic and bloody weekend there. How are things in Charlottesville now?

ELLIOTT: Yes, well, still very tense. You can just listen to this scene from outside the courthouse today.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Nazis, go home. Nazis, go home.

ELLIOTT: So what is happening here is a couple of white nationalists were yelling at the media and police for not protecting them when local people just sort of surrounded them and ran them out of the public square. So the tension here is just - it is still - you know, people are still on edge. They're putting flowers and mementos out at the site of the crash, trying to remember 32-year-old Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed.

SIEGEL: What are you hearing from local leaders there about what should happen next?

ELLIOTT: They want to continue a dialogue on race, one that they say has begun here years ago. On the state level, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe says he's ordering an extensive review of how the state issues rally permits and how law enforcement responds. So we expect more there.

SIEGEL: NPR's Debbie Elliott in Charlottesville, Va., thanks.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.