Alleged driver in 'Unite the Right' rally violence in Charlottesville charged with first-degree murder

James Alex Fields Jr. appeared at a preliminary hearing Thursday afternoon.

ByABC News
December 14, 2017, 7:40 PM

— -- The driver accused of barreling a car into a crowd protesting the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia has been charged with first-degree murder.

James Alex Fields Jr., 20, appeared in handcuffs and a black-and-white striped jail uniform while during a preliminary hearing in a downtown Charlottesville circuit court Thursday, where a murder charge against him was upgraded from second-degree murder to first-degree murder. A conviction for second-degree murder carries a maximum sentence of 40 years; first-degree murder carries a penalty of up to life in prison.

On Aug. 12, Fields allegedly drove into a crowd of counterprotestors who were demonstrating against the white nationalist rally, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring several others.

Fields was initially charged with second-degree murder in Heyers' death, as well as three counts of malicious wounding, three counts of aggravated malicious wounding, two charges of felonious assault and failure to stop that led to death, court records show.

During the hearing, Fields appeared sullen and hunched over. At one point, a man sitting in the gallery interrupted the hearing, shouting, "F--- this, I'm out of here" before he left the courtroom.

On the day of the rally, a group of white nationalists, which included neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members, descended onto Charlottesville, spurred by the city's plans to remove a Confederate statue from a downtown park. Violence broke out as counterprotesters clashed with white nationalists, prompting Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to declare a state of emergency.

In addition to Fields, three other people appeared in court on charges relating to the rally, including discharging a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school, malicious wounding and felony assault on the day of the rally, according to court records.

About a dozens of protesters were seen outside the courthouse during the hearing, carrying signs that read "White supremacy is evil" and "Love over fear." The city had shut down nearby streets ahead of the hearing in anticipation of crowds.

Fields is being housed in a Virginia jail after he was denied bail in August. He did not enter a plea during Thursday's hearing.

Fields' attorney, Denise Lunsford, declined to provide a comment to ABC News.

A grand jury is scheduled to convene on Monday.

ABC News' Lucien Bruggeman and Matt Seyler contributed to this report.