Editor’s Note: Page Pate, a CNN legal analyst, is a criminal defense and constitutional lawyer based in Atlanta. He is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Georgia, a founding member of the Georgia Innocence Project, a former board member of the Federal Defender Program in Atlanta and the former chairman of the criminal law section of the Atlanta Bar Association. Follow him on Twitter @pagepate. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion articles at CNN.
Last week, a jury in Charlottesville, Virginia, found James Fields guilty of murdering Heather Heyer, in addition to nine other charges. It unanimously agreed that Heyer’s death was the direct result of Fields’ decision to drive his car into a large group of pedestrians who were opposing the “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017. Fields could now spend the rest of his life in prison.
There was little doubt that Fields had turned his car toward the crowd that day and put his foot on the gas. The only question for the jury was why. Was it out of a legitimate fear of the crowd, as Fields claimed, or was it an intentional act of harm?
This was an emotionally charged case from the beginning and a challenge for the lawyers defending Fields, who were carrying a very heavy burden during this trial. Not only did they have to defend someone who had undisputedly killed an innocent woman and injured many others, but they also had to contend with the evidence of Fields’ hatred and racism that hung over the courtroom.
The judge allowed the jury to hear extremely damaging text message evidence that Fields went to the rally that day on a mission, fueled by his neo-Nazi beliefs.
Also presented as evidence was an image Fields had posted on Instagram prior to the incident, showing a car driving through protesters and captioned, “You have the right to protest, but I’m late for work.”
Fields’ lawyers fought back against this narrative by trying to show that their client did not intend to kill anyone. He was not angry, they argued. He was simply afraid of the crowd. They presented testimony from people who were there that day who described Fields’ demeanor as “calm and normal” and perhaps “a little scared.” The defense lawyer tried to set the scene as a “perfect storm” of events leading to the tragedy – one that Fields simply had no control over.
But the evidence against Fields was too damning, and the jury was convinced of Fields’ guilt. They recommended a life sentence, the maximum penalty Fields could face for the murder charge.
In his conviction and sentencing recommendation, we can take solace knowing that not only was justice served but that a jury of individuals, representing the American people, were willing to stand up for what was right – and condemn what was wrong.
This message from the jury comes at a pivotal moment, as people with views strikingly similar to Fields’ continue their mission of racism and intolerance across the United States.
But it isn’t solely up to the criminal justice system to stand up to the hate. The rest of us have to work harder to push back. We can never accept that the people who share Fields’ beliefs are “some very fine people.” And we can never accept the comment Fields made to his mother while awaiting trial, that Heyer’s death “doesn’t f**king matter.”
Heyer’s death does matter. It matters to her family. It matters to that jury in Charlottesville. And it should matter to anyone who wants to confront hatred and the violence it spawns.
I don’t know if the organizers of this march were able to “Unite the Right,” but I know that the words and actions of these individuals united the rest of us in our opposition to their message, their prejudice, and their callousness toward innocent life.
James Fields won’t be the last person to commit a hate crime, and Heather Heyer won’t be the last victim of racism. But if this case teaches us anything, it’s that the vast majority of people won’t tolerate these egregious acts. The jury in Charlottesville got it right. Hate didn’t win.