RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A state trial will likely be held for a man accused in a deadly car attack on protesters opposing a white nationalist rally in Virginia before he’s tried on federal hate crime charges that carry a possible death penalty. In a joint motion filed Thursday, federal prosecutors and 21-year-old James Alex Fields Jr.’s defense attorneys said they need time to prepare for the “complex” federal case. The two sides also said that the state trial — scheduled to begin Nov. 26 — and its outcome “may provide information that is material” to a determination by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions whether to seek the death penalty in the federal case.
Fields, of Maumee, Ohio, is accused of killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of people on Aug. 12 after a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville by driving his car into a crowd demonstrating against the rally. The event attracted hundreds of white nationalists to the college town where officials planned to remove a statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Fields faces murder and other charges under Virginia law. Last week, he was indicted on 30 federal charges. Twenty-nine of the counts were brought under a hate crimes law that carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
The 30th count was brought under a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. It accuses Fields of racially motivated violent interference with a federally protected activity — the use of the public streets and sidewalks of Charlottesville — resulting in death.
The charge can carry the death penalty. Prosecutors have not decided whether to seek it, and the process could take months.
The law requires prosecutors to prove not only that Fields acted because of the actual or perceived race or national origin of members of the crowd, but also that he was motivated by Heyer’s use of the streets and sidewalks of Charlottesville.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said he believes federal prosecutors have agreed to let the state put Fields on trial first because it’s a stretch for them to try to use the hate crimes statute that makes him eligible for the death penalty.
“It makes sense for them to wait until after the state trial because as the facts stand right now, it’s an extremely tenuous death penalty claim,” Dunham said.
“The fact that something is labeled a hate crime doesn’t by itself make it a capital offense. There has to be more. The way the statute is written, on the facts of this case, it’s not clear that there is any basis to seek the death penalty.”
But Jonathan Turley, a professor at the George Washington University Law School, said he believes the decision to hold the state trial first is a good strategic move by prosecutors.
“The state is likely to produce a great deal of evidence that the federal prosecutors do not currently have. In particular, they will be able to see the evidence marshaled by the defense as to the state of mind of Fields,” Turley said.
Fields pleaded not guilty Thursday to the federal charges.