Last week, this blog discussed James Fields and his alleged actions in Charlottesville. More specifically, why the presumption of innocence matters in our legal system. This week, this blog will take a look at the charges he is facing and what that could mean for his future.
In order to define second-degree murder, the Code of Virginia first defines first-degree murder. “Murder, other than capital murder, by poison, lying in wait, imprisonment, starving, or by any willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing, or in the commission of, or attempt to commit, arson, rape, forcible sodomy, inanimate or animate object sexual penetration, robbery, burglary or abduction…is murder of the first degree, punishable as a Class 2 felony.” The law then goes on to say that any other type of murder that is not capital murder or first-degree murder is second-degree murder.
The two most interesting parts of the definition of first-degree murder as they relate to James Fields is “lying in wait” and “premeditated.” By charging Fields with second-degree murder, authorities are saying that this was not a premeditated murder, likely because he did not specifically mean to kill Heather Heyer, the woman who died. On the other hand, defendants are often charged with second-degree murder initially so that the government can amend the charge at a later time. The punishment for second-degree murder is five to forty years in prison. Elsewhere, the Code of Virginia determines that second-degree murder is a felony charge.
Second-degree murder is just one of the ten charges that Fields is facing. Fields is also facing five charges of malicious wounding. According to the Code of Virginia, “(i)f any person maliciously shoot, stab, cut, or wound any person or by any means cause him bodily injury, with the intent to maim, disfigure, disable, or kill, he shall, except where it is otherwise provided, be guilty of a Class 3 felony.” This is another long legal definition, but a quick glance at the types of injury show that they likely apply to Fields' case.
The key is that general phrase “by any means cause him bodily injury.” The authorities, by charging Fields with five counts, will make the case that Fields caused bodily injury to five people. Also, the second part of the definition that mentions intent is key. Prosecutors will likely use the fact that Fields allegedly drove his car into a crowd to prove intent.
Malicious wounding is a Class 3 felony. Class 3 felonies lead to prison sentences of five to twenty years. A fine of up to $100,000 also accompanies it. Remember that Fields is facing five charges of malicious wounding.
Aggravated Malicious Wounding:
Aggravated malicious wounding is a heightened form of malicious wounding. While the definition is exactly the same for aggravated malicious wounding, the results are what cause the difference. If a person is “severely injured and is caused to suffer permanent and significant physical impairment,” it becomes aggravated malicious wounding.
Instead of a Class 3 felony, aggravated malicious wounding is considered a Class 2 felony. The punishment is anywhere between twenty years and a life sentence. Fields is facing three counts of aggravated malicious wounding.
Failure to Stop at an Accident that Resulted in Death:
This tenth and final charge that Fields is facing is the result of his decision not to stop his vehicle at the scene of the crime. The likelihood is that, in addition to the other penalties he may face, Fields will also lose his driver’s license. Whether or not that matters much for him remains to be seen.
As you have read, James Fields is facing significant charges and penalties. The criminal justice process is this case, however, is just getting starting. While the outcome may seem certain, it is important to remember that the process needs to be fully carried out. When someone like Fields receives justice in the proper way, it gives certainty to the rest of us that, if we ever find ourselves in a legal situation, the system will work for us as well.
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