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Charge upgraded to first-degree murder for man accused of plowing into Charlottesville protesters

The charge was upgraded to first-degree murder against suspect James Alex Fields Jr., who drove his car into a crowd Aug. 12 during a protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)

The man accused of plowing his car into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August faces an upgraded charge of first-degree murder following a court hearing held Thursday, Savannah Now reported.

James Alex Fields Jr. previously faced a second-degree murder charge for the attack that killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injured dozens more who were demonstrating at the "Unite the Right" rally on Aug. 12. He would have faced 5 to 40 years for second-degree murder.

In addition to first-degree murder, Fields faces one felony count of hit-and-run; five felony counts of aggravated assault; and three felony counts of aggravated malicious wounding, Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. First-degree murder, which requires premeditation, carries a sentence of 20 years to life.

What happened at the hearing?

Prosecutors presented surveillance video that captured the moment of impact and other evidence at the hearing attended by Fields as well as at least two dozen of Heyer's family members and supporters, according to the Times-Dispatch. Charlottesville General District Judge Robert Downer Jr. ruled that prosecutors showed probable cause to pursue the upgraded charge.

Troopers on board the helicopter were heard cursing in the video as they witnessed the speeding Dodge Challenger when it rammed into the crowd, reversed and pulled over.

Marcus Martin, who was injured during the attack when he pushed his fiancee out of the car's path, also attended the hearing. He became angry watching the video. He cursed out loud and yelled, "Take me out." He and some others left the courtroom, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Fields' attorney, Denise Lunsford, made no arguments nor did she present any evidence during the 90-minute hearing. Though she did cross-examine Charlottesville Police Detective Steven Young who was among the first officers to respond to the scene where Fields pulled over.

Hours before the attack, a photo taken of Fields showed him wearing an emblem of Vanguard America, one of the hate groups that participated in the rally, according to Savannah Now. The group denied association with him.

Young said during cross-examination that none of the searches of the suspect's computer, phone or social media showed evidence that Fields was part of Vanguard America.

What is known about Fields?

Derek Weimer, a former teacher of the suspect, has said the 20-year-old was fascinated with Nazism and Adolf Hitler when he attended high school in Union, Kentucky. He also said Fields was singled out by school officials for his "deeply held, radical" convictions on race, according to the Tribune.

Fields' case will go before a grand jury on Monday.

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