Is Alleged Charlottesville Killer a Terrorist? James Alex Fields Charged With Federal Hate Crimes

The driver who is accused of killing a woman and injuring dozens more after driving his car into a group of counterprotesters at last year's white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was charged Wednesday with federal hate crimes.

A federal grand jury indicted 21-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. with one count of a hate crime that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, 28 counts of hate crimes causing bodily injury and involving an attempt to kill, and one count of racially motivated violent interference in a federally protected activity—driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters on a downtown street during a Unite the Right Rally.

Fields already faced state charges of first-degree murder.

But one charge that fields will not face is that of domestic terrorism.

MEET James Alex Fields
The Man charged with plowing his car into crowd in #Charlottesville

— 🏳️‍🌈The Obamacrat™ (@ifuaskmee) August 14, 2017

"It does meet the definition of domestic terrorism in our statute," Attorney General Jeff Sessions told ABC's Good Morning America last August.

Sessions's statement following the indictment did not mention domestic terrorism charges, or the possibility of any. "Today's indictment should send a clear message to every would-be criminal in America that we aggressively prosecute violent crimes of hate that threaten the core principles of our nation," he said.

That may be because a federal law against domestic terrorism does not exist.

"There is no federal crime of domestic terrorism, so there isn't any possibility for that being charged under federal law at present," Mary McCord, a Georgetown University law professor and former acting assistant attorney general at the Justice Department, told Newsweek.

McCord said that because Fields's actions were not in support of a foreign terrorist organization, Fields could not be charged with international terrorism either. She said the federal hate crimes charges were the most obvious route.

If the U.S. were to create a federal domestic terrorism charge, McCord said it would require the designation of domestic terrorist organizations, which is not as easy as it sounds given the protections of the First Amendment.

"How would we designate…when an organization is a terrorist organization and not just expressing ideological views?" she said. "Then it becomes controversial."

The federal government could criminalize acts of violence that are committed for the purpose of domestic terrorism, which is in part "to intimidate or coerce a civilian population," McCord said. She noted that international terrorism lists the same purposes under federal law.

"You could just make that into a crime without having to designate domestic terrorist organizations," she explained.

Because of the lack of a domestic terrorism statute at the federal level, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and Democratic State Delegate Marcia Price pushed for legislation that would make domestic terrorism a state crime in Virginia, reported the Associated Press in January.