CHARLOTTESVILLE • An apology and forgiveness from the victim's family were not enough to save a self-described neo-Nazi from a lifetime behind bars, after he drove a car into a crowd that was counter-protesting a white supremacy rally in Virginia and killed a woman in the process.
Delivering an unemotional apology on Friday to seek a lesser sentence, James Fields, 22, from Maumee, Ohio, said he was sorry for the hurt and loss he had caused, USA Today reported.
"Every day I think about how things could have gone differently and how I regret my actions. I'm sorry," he said.
Fields was among hundreds of white supremacists who swarmed Charlottesville in August 2017 for the "Unite the Right" rally, in which they shouted anti-Semitic phrases, marched with tiki torches and attacked a racially diverse group of counter-protesters.
The rally appeared to be winding down when Fields drove his car into a crowd of those counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old paralegal and activist Heather Heyer and injuring 29 others.
Fields' apology failed to move District Judge Michael Urbanski, who said he had to avert his eyes while the court viewed graphic video of the attack that showed bodies flying into the air as Fields crashed into them, Reuters reported.
Sentencing him to life without the possibility of parole, the judge said: "The release of the defendant into a free society is too great a risk."
Fields pleaded guilty to 29 federal charges earlier this year, including a hate crime for Ms Heyer's death. Federal prosecutors dropped another charge that could have led to the death penalty.
Fields was convicted separately in state court of first-degree murder in December, and jurors recommended a life sentence. The sentencing will take place in July.
The "Unite the Right" rally proved a critical moment in the rise of the "alt-right", a loose alignment of fringe groups centred on white nationalism and emboldened by US President Donald Trump's 2016 election.
Mr Trump was criticised from the left and the right for initially saying there were "fine people on both sides" of the dispute between neo-Nazis and their opponents at the rally. Subsequent alt-right gatherings failed to draw crowds the size of the Charlottesville rally.
Ahead of Friday's sentencing hearing, prosecutors noted that Fields had long espoused violent beliefs.
Less than a month before the attack, he posted an image on Instagram showing a car ploughing through a crowd of people captioned: "You have the right to protest but I'm late for work."
He was also photographed hours before the attack carrying a shield with the emblem of a far-right hate group. He has identified himself as a neo-Nazi.
Fields' attorneys suggested he felt intimidated and acted to protect himself. They asked for mercy, citing his relative youth and history of mental health diagnoses.
But prosecutors argued that Fields remained unrepentant after the attack, noting that in a December 2017 phone call from jail with his mother, he blasted Ms Heyer's mother, Ms Susan Bro, for her activism after the attack.
"She is a communist. An anti-white liberal," Fields said, according to court papers filed by prosecutors.
He rejected his mother's plea to consider that the woman had "lost her daughter", replying: "She's the enemy."
Ms Heyer's father Mark told the court he has forgiven Fields.
"I want to publicly forgive him. It is not me, it is Christ in me."
After the sentencing, Ms Heyer's mother said she hoped her daughter would be remembered as a regular person who stood up for her beliefs.
"The point of Heather's death is not that she was a saint - and, Lord, my child was never a saint - but that an ordinary person can do a simple act... that can make all the difference in the world," Ms Bro said in an interview.