Will the federal government prosecute James Fields for his car attack on protesters in Charlottesville that killed Heather Heyer and left 19 other injured? Jeff Sessions tells NBC’s Pete Williams that the Department of Justice could file charges against the neo-Nazi either for civil-rights violations, a hate crime, or perhaps both. Sessions suggested the the DoJ would allow the state to take the lead, as they “clearly have jurisdiction too,” but will the Attorney General sit this one out even if states do prosecute Fields?
“It very well could be a civil rights violation or a hate crime, and there might be other charges that could be brought,” Sessions said during an interview at the Justice Department. “So we are working it intensely on the assumption we may well might want to prosecute him. We’re also working with the state and local authorities that clearly have jurisdiction, too. And often they’re the ones that have the best charges.” …
“We’ll work with the state and locals and then decide, in a collaborative way, to see what the best charges will be. One of the worst things you can do is get into some sort of fight over jurisdiction and try to snatch a case from another jurisdiction. The right and professional thing to do is work together and to make an honest and objective decision about whether the right place is to bring the case.”
As for how soon the federal government might file charges, “I don’t feel like we should feel like we have to do it in a matter of hours or even days,” in part because the investigation is ongoing.
That’s fair enough. No jurisdiction should rush to judgment on charges and prosecution, but does that really apply in this case? Fields was arrested at the scene, and the incident was caught on several video sources. It shouldn’t take much longer than “days” to make a determination for any of the jurisdictions.
Traditionally, the DoJ usually sits out cases where states effectively prosecute defendants, and Virginia prosecutors have plenty of incentive to do so here as well. The use of federal civil-rights and hate-crime charges normally get reserved for those cases in which local and state prosecution have failed, which is why Sessions makes the point that those venues are usually the first resort.
Given the politics of this situation, it seems less than likely that Sessions will want to stay on the sidelines. For better or worse, the Trump administration will need to demonstrate a tough attitude with Fields, in part because Donald Trump keeps shifting his response to the neo-Nazi instigators in the Charlottesville incident. Sessions will work with Virginia and the local jurisdiction, allowing them to go first, but you can bet that Sessions will want to establish his (and Trump’s) no-nonsense bona fides by charging Fields on the civil-rights violations at the least. If they don’t, Sessions has to know that the media will have a “field day” (pardon the pun) that will last, oh, the rest of Trump’s term.