White supremacists organized their "Unite the Right" event in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, to defend a sculpture of a Confederate military leader. Photo: Rodney Dunning

Department of Justice opens civil rights investigation into Charlottesville death

Federal authorities have opened a "civil rights investigation" into the death of a woman at a White supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, as President Donald Trump continues to face questions about his handling of the incident.

Some news reports labeled the probe into the death of Heather Heyer, 32, as a "hate crime" investigation. A joint statement from the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Virginia did not specifically use those words, however.

"As this is an ongoing investigation we are not able to comment further at this time," Acting U.S. Attorney Rick A. Mountcastle said in a statement on Saturday afternoon, after Heyer was killed when a car allegedly driven by a White supremacist rammed into her and others.

Trump offered condolences to Heyer's family later in the evening and to the families of two police officers who died while responding to the rally. But earlier in the day, he refused to mention the involvement of White supremacists, who organized their Unite the Right event specifically to defend a monument to a racist figure in Charlottesvile.

"We condemn in the strongest most possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides," Trump said in remarks following the incident. Republicans and Democrats alike said the response was inadequate.

"White supremacy is a scourge. This hate and its terrorism must be confronted and defeated," Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), the Speaker of the House, said in a post on Twitter that was characteristic of responses from most other politicians.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the leader of the Department of Justice, has since called the death of Heyer an act of "domestic terrorism." During an appearance on ABC News' Good Morning America on Monday morning, he indicated that the "civil rights" probe is more than just that.

"Terrorism investigators from the FBI are working on the case as well as civil rights division FBI agents." Sessions said on the program.

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a federal statute, was written in response to racially-motivated crimes. The first-ever prosecution under the 2009 law took place in New Mexico after a disabled citizen of the Navajo Nation was brutally attacked by three men in April 2010. The law survived a challenge from one of the defendants, all of whom pleaded guilty for their roles in the crime, which occurred outside of Indian Country.

According to news reports, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, has been arrested in connection with Heyer's death. He has been charged with second-degree murder, The New York Times said.

Prior to the incident, Fields was seen with a White supremacist group in Charlottesville. The group recruits young followers like Fields and frequently targets institutions connected to the Jewish faith, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Read More on the Story:
Sessions defends Trump's comments on Charlottesville, says car-ramming fits definition of domestic terror (ABC News August 14, 2017)
Sessions defends Trump’s response to Charlottesville violence (The Washington Post August 14, 2017)
‘Evil Attack’ in Virginia Is Domestic Terrorism, Sessions Says (The New York Times August 14, 2017)
Alleged driver of car that plowed into Charlottesville crowd was a Nazi sympathizer, former teacher says (The Washington Post August 13, 2017)
White House Acts to Stem Fallout From Trump’s First Charlottesville Remarks (The New York Times August 13, 2017)

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