U.S. court allows Equitrans to keep building Mountain Valley natgas pipe

By Scott DiSavino

(Reuters) – The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a motion to stay a permit for the $5.8-$6.0 billion Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to Virginia.

Analysts said that court decision on Wednesday – not to stay the pipeline’s Biological Opinion – increases the odds Equitrans Midstream Corp can put the long-delayed project into service in the second half of 2021.

The Biological Opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows construction in areas inhabited by endangered and threatened species.

Mountain Valley is one of several oil and gas pipelines delayed by regulatory and legal fights with environmental and local groups that found problems with permits issued by the Trump administration.

When Equitrans started construction in February 2018, it estimated Mountain Valley would cost about $3.5 billion and be completed by the end of 2018.

The 303-mile (487.6 km) pipeline was designed to deliver 2 billion cubic feet per day of gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia to consumers in the Mid Atlantic and Southeast. One billion cubic feet is enough to supply about 5 million U.S. homes for a day

Analysts said denial of the stay allows Equitrans to continue construction in areas other than the 25-mile (40-km)exclusion zone surrounding the Jefferson National Forest while the court considers the merits of appeals against the Biological Opinion.

Analysts at Height Capital Markets said the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission may decide soon to reduce that exclusion zone to 7.7 miles.

Height Capital Markets also said Mountain Valley must begin applying for an individual stream crossing permit in case it loses an ongoing lawsuit against its Nationwide Permit or President-elect Joe Biden’s administration remands the permit, both of which seem probable.

The Nationwide Permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allows the project to cross waterbodies.

“We continue to have high conviction that the project will be completed, though the Biden administration could delay the ultimate in-service date to 2022,” Height Capital Markets said.

Mountain Valley is owned by units of Equitrans, NextEra Energy Inc, Consolidated Edison Inc, AltaGas Ltd and RGC Resources.

(Reporting By Scott DiSavino; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Mountain Valley says natural gas pipeline timing depends on litigation, U.S. approvals

(Reuters) – Equitrans Midstream Corp said on Monday it will evaluate the cost and timing of the completion of the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline based on ongoing litigation and upcoming federal approvals.

The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) gave Mountain Valley permission late Friday to resume some construction on its $5.4 billion-$5.7 billion pipeline, which runs from Virginia to West Virginia.

“As the litigation process progresses and as we receive additional information from FERC regarding potentially releasing the remainder of the route for construction, (Mountain Valley) will continue to evaluate its current construction plans, budget, and schedule,” Equitrans said.

Mountain Valley is one of several U.S. oil and gas pipelines delayed by regulatory and legal fights with environmental and local groups that found problems with federal permits issued by the Trump administration.

FERC suspended work on Mountain Valley a year ago due to litigation over the project’s Biological Opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which allows construction in areas inhabited by endangered and threatened species.

The FWS issued a new Biological Opinion in early September. Environmental and other groups continue to challenge the latest FWS approval and other federal permits in court.

Analysts at Height Capital Markets said they expect the project to enter service in mid 2021 but noted timing could slip to the third quarter of 2021 if legal challenges prevent some stream crossings.

“We acknowledge the legal challenge that is currently before Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and have agreed to temporarily delay stream and waterbody activities out of respect for that process,” Equitrans said.

Equitrans has said it expects the pipeline, which is about 92% complete, to enter service in early 2021.

In February 2018, when Equitrans started construction, it estimated Mountain Valley would cost about $3.5 billion and be completed by the end of 2018.

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino; Editing by Alexander Smith and Steve Orlofsky)

New U.S. COVID-19 cases rise 17% in past week, deaths up 5%

(Reuters) – The weekly number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States rose last week for the first time after falling for eight straight weeks, an increase that health experts attributed to schools reopening and parties over the Labor Day holiday.

New cases rose 17% to about 287,000 for the week ended Sept. 20, while deaths rose 5.5% to about 5,400 people after falling for the previous four weeks, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county reports.

Thirteen states have seen weekly infections rise for at least two weeks, up from nine states the previous week, according to the Reuters tally. In Arizona, new cases doubled last week.

On average, more than 776 people a day died from COVID-19 last week, with deaths rising in Arkansas, Kansas and Virginia.

After weeks of declining test rates, an average of 812,000 people a day were tested last week. The country set a record of testing over 1 million people on Saturday.

Nationally, the share of all tests that came back positive for COVID-19 fell for a seventh week to 5.0%, well below a recent peak of nearly 9% in mid-July, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

However, 26 of the 50 states still have positive test rates above the 5% level that the World Health Organization considers concerning. The highest positive test rates are in the Midwest at over 16% in Idaho, Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota.

(Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Graphic by Chris Canipe; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

U.S. postal chaos prompts Democrats to reassess mail-ballot plan

By Jarrett Renshaw and Andy Sullivan

(Reuters) – Turmoil at the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is causing some Democrats and local election officials to rethink their vote-by-mail strategies for November’s presidential election, shifting emphasis to drop boxes and early voting that bypass the post office.

The 2020 contest promises to be the nation’s largest test of voting by mail. But U.S. President Donald Trump’s relentless, unsubstantiated attacks on mail balloting, along with cost-cutting that has delayed mail service nationwide, have sown worry and confusion among many voters.

Democratic officials who just weeks ago were touting their dominance in mail balloting during a recent rash of primaries are now cautioning supporters of presidential challenger Joe Biden to be wary. Operatives in battleground states, including Pennsylvania, are particularly concerned about ballots arriving too late to count for the Nov. 3 election.

“We are considering telling voters that if they haven’t mailed out their complete ballot by Oct. 15, don’t bother. Instead, vote in person or drop off the ballot” at an elections office, said Joe Foster, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Montgomery County, the most populous of Philadelphia’s suburban counties. “We want to make sure every vote counts.”

Other local Democratic leaders, from states like Florida and North Carolina, told Reuters they also are weighing urging voters to submit mail ballots weeks ahead of the election or else vote in person.

On Tuesday, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced he was suspending cost-cutting measures he had put in place in recent weeks that had led to widespread service disruptions. Those changes included limits on employee overtime, orders for trucks to depart on schedule even if there was mail still to be loaded, and the removal of some mail sorting machines.

“The Postal Service is ready today to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives this fall,” DeJoy said in a statement. He also promised to deploy “standby resources” beginning Oct. 1 to satisfy any unforeseen demand.

But some Democrats said the damage is already done. Many don’t trust DeJoy – who was a major Trump campaign donor before becoming postal chief – to restore service at the independent government agency amid a presidential race that polls say Biden is leading.

“Return the mailboxes you removed,” Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island said on Twitter. “Return the sorting machines you took out. Restore the regular hours of post offices you cut short. Return postal vehicles you took. The list goes on.”

A USPS spokesman declined to comment. DeJoy is expected to provide more detail on his plans in testimony before the Senate on Friday and the House of Representatives on Monday.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Tuesday that Trump never told the Postal Service to change its operations.

Democrats asked for $25 billion to shore up the balance sheet of the USPS in a massive virus aid package that passed the House of Representatives in May. Republicans have balked at that figure, and Trump last week said he opposed that funding because it might be used to encourage mail voting. But administration officials in recent days have said they are open to additional funding as public outrage over the USPS drama has grown.

Local Democratic officials, operatives and campaign workers said they are not waiting for a Washington solution.

In the competitive state of Michigan, Democratic voter outreach volunteer Karen McJimpson, 64, is phoning voters to encourage them to hand-deliver their absentee ballots directly to specified drop boxes or elections offices in light of concerns about mail delivery. She said Tuesday’s news about restored service gave her no comfort.“I don’t trust it,” said McJimpson, who volunteers with a nonprofit called Michigan United. “There has been too much noise around this, and someone is clearly pulling the strings. We are going to proceed as planned: drop the ballots off.”

Upheaval at the USPS has reshuffled some Democrats’ plans for other types of election mail as well.

Brad Crone, a Democratic strategist in North Carolina, plans to send up to two million mailers between now and Election Day supporting various state and congressional candidates. The campaign flyers are mailed directly from his printer, who last week sent him a notice: If Crone wants to mail anything beyond Oct. 19, he must sign a waiver acknowledging that it might not get there before Election Day.

Crone said he will now stop his mailings by Oct. 4, three weeks earlier than he had originally planned.

“It’s alarming,” Crone said. “Americans are witnessing major system breakdowns, whether it’s the postal system, COVID testing or their local schools. The average voter is seeing this and is just floored.”

DROP BOX BATTLE

Mail voting has grown steadily since the turn of the century. In the 2016 presidential election, mail ballots accounted for 23.6% of all ballots cast, up from 19.2% in 2008, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Interest has exploded this year as voters have sought to avoid crowded polling places due to the coronavirus pandemic. Mail ballots accounted for 80% of all votes cast in 16 state primaries this year, including Wisconsin, Nevada and Pennsylvania, according to an estimate by Charles Stewart III, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Some states, such as New York, have struggled to handle the crush.

The surge has sparked a slew of litigation. Republicans in Texas, for example, fended off a recent Democratic effort to make it easier for its citizens to vote by mail in the pandemic. The vast majority of Texans will be required to vote in person in November.

Democrats have prevailed elsewhere. In South Carolina, officials have agreed to provide prepaid postage for absentee ballots, easing a barrier for those who otherwise would have to provide their own stamps. In Minnesota, the state agreed to suspend a requirement that absentee voters get a witness to sign their ballots and to count ballots that are postmarked by Election Day.

The Democratic Party currently has ongoing litigation on mail voting in 14 states, according to Marc Elias, the lawyer overseeing the effort.

Trump has spent the last few weeks making unsupported allegations that mail voting is vulnerable to tampering and would result in Democrats stealing the election. He has sought to distinguish between states that provide mail ballots only to voters who request them – including Florida, where Trump himself votes absentee – and those that are moving to conduct their elections entirely by mail, which he claims could lead to widespread cheating.

Election experts say mail voting is as secure as any other method.

Trump’s attacks have forced state and local Republicans to engage in some damage control. Many of their most reliable supporters, particularly elderly voters, have long used mail balloting. Some Republicans fear the president’s broadsides will depress turnout.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released on Monday found that nearly half of Biden supporters plan to vote by mail in November, while just 11% of Trump supporters plan to do so.

The latest front in the voting battle is the dedicated election drop box, a sealed, sturdily built receptacle that has been a popular option for voters who prefer mail ballots but don’t want to return them via the USPS. Election officials collect those ballots and take them to polling locations for counting.

Election officials in South Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere are seeking to expand drop-off locations or ease requirements such as those mandating that voters show identification to use them.

Those changes have met resistance from Republicans over concerns about fraud. On Monday, Trump turned his fire on drop boxes.

“Some states use ‘drop boxes’ for the collection of Universal Mail-In Ballots. So who is going to ‘collect’ the Ballots, and what might be done to them prior to tabulation?” he wrote on Twitter. “A Rigged Election? So bad for our Country.”

Rob Daniel, chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party in South Carolina, said there is just one election drop box in the county of roughly 400,0000 people. He said some voters must drive 45 minutes to reach it because of the county’s odd shape.

Daniel said the county board of elections is seeking permission from the state to add more boxes, but that is no certainty. As a backup, the party is urging voters to request their mail ballots early and return them via the USPS as soon as possible.

“Even Trump can’t screw up the Postal Service so much that it can’t deliver mail across town in 30 days,” Daniel said.

Still, Democrats see a bigger worry: Trump has already raised the possibility that he might not accept the results of an election whose outcome could take days to decide because of the quantity of mail ballots that will need to be counted.

“That is absolutely our biggest threat,” Michigan’s Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist said.

(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw in Pennsylvania and Andy Sullivan in Washington; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Detroit and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Ten more states added to New York quarantine order: Cuomo

(Reuters) – Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday ordered those arriving in New York from an additional 10 states to quarantine for 14 days to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus as cases flare up across the country.

Alaska, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Virginia, Washington were added to the travel order which was first issued in June. Minnesota was removed.

Travelers arriving in New York from a total of 31 U.S. states are now required to quarantine upon arrival in New York, according to the travel advisory.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Where U.S. coronavirus cases are on the rise

By Chris Canipe and Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Several southern U.S. states reported sharp increases in COVID-19 infections, with Alabama, South Carolina and Virginia all seeing new cases rise 35% or more in the week ended May 31 compared with the prior week, according to a Reuters analysis.

South Carolina health officials said they expected more increases in the future due to a lack of social distancing and mask-wearing at protests triggered by the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minnesota.

“If people don’t follow current recommendations for social distancing and avoiding crowds of any kind, we can anticipate seeing increased numbers,” the South Carolina health department said in a statement to Reuters.

Graphic: Tracking the novel coronavirus in the U.S.

South Carolina said the recent rise in its new cases, which have been going up for three weeks, was in part due to the completion of testing in the state’s 194 nursing homes.

Alabama’s health department attributed the state’s steady increase in cases since early May to community transmission, clusters of outbreaks, and more testing.

Virginia officials were not immediately available for comment.

Nationally, new COVID-19 cases fell for a fifth straight week, down 4.7% last week compared with a 0.8% drop the prior week, according to the Reuters analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

As all 50 states have partially reopened, cases are rising in 17 states compared with 20 in the prior week. (For an interactive graphic, click here)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended states wait for their daily number of new COVID-19 cases to fall for 14 days before easing social distancing restrictions.

Thirteen states have met the criteria for the week ended May 31, compared with 14 states and the District of Columbia the prior week, the analysis showed. Pennsylvania and New York lead with seven straight weeks of declines, and new cases are also falling in New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

(Graphic: World-focused tracker with country-by-country interactive, )

(Reporting by Chris Canipe in Kansas City, Missouri, and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

Thousands of armed activists gather at Virginia’s pro-gun rally

By Brad Brooks

RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) – Thousands of armed pro-gun activists from across the United States rallied outside Virginia’s capitol building on Monday to protest new restrictions proposed by state lawmakers, with authorities bracing for violence.

The rally began on a cold morning with a festival-like atmosphere in the streets of Richmond. Many in the crowds were dressed in camouflage or tactical gear and carrying weapons as they exchanged pleasantries with others arriving at the event. Some browsed vendors’ pro-gun T-shirts and other merchandise, much of it carrying slogans supporting President Donald Trump.

Those backing tougher gun restrictions see Democrats taking control of the Virginia legislature for the first time in a generation on campaign promises of tougher access to arms as offering a model for other traditionally gun-friendly states.

Activists at the rally argued that Virginia is stomping on their constitutional right to bear arms and vowed that Monday’s event will help citizens understand how quickly they can lose the ability to carry guns, based on who wins at the ballot box.

“What’s going on here, if not stopped, will spread to other states,” said Teri Horne, who had traveled to Virginia from her home in Texas with her Smith & Wesson rifle and .40-caliber handgun. “They will come for our guns in other states if we don’t stop them in Virginia.”

Activists said they were planning only a peaceful protest. Security was tight with a large police presence. Those wanting to enter Capitol Square to hear the morning’s speakers had to pass through a single entrance for security screening, leaving their guns outside.

Tension rose ahead of the rally after the FBI last week arrested three members of a small neo-Nazi group, who authorities said hoped to ignite a race war through violence at the gathering, reminiscent of a 2017 white supremacist rally in nearby Charlottesville.

People across the United States were focused on the Virginia gun issue, said Philip Van Cleave, leader of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which is organizing Monday’s rally.

“They don’t want us to fail in stopping this,” Van Cleave said on Sunday. “We’ve gotten huge donations from other states.”

Van Cleave has rejected calls for violence, but he has urged tens of thousands of armed supporters from across the United States to be in Richmond to provide security for his group.

A spokesman for the Capitol police said Van Cleave had worked closely with law enforcement on plans for the rally.

High-profile national militia figures gathered for a meeting on Sunday near Richmond said they wanted Monday’s event to be peaceful, but feared the worst, including the risk of a “lone wolf” unleashing bitter fighting with a single shot.

“The buildup is probably one of the most intense I’ve seen,” said Tammy Lee, a right-wing internet personality from Oklahoma who was involved in the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally.

Christian Yingling, head of the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia and a leader in Charlottesville, said none of his men would carry long guns and they wanted to avoid skirmishes.

‘FUNDAMENTAL SHIFT’

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has vowed to push through new gun control laws and is backing a package of eight bills, including universal background checks, a “red flag” law, a ban on assault rifles and a limit of one handgun-a-month purchase.

“The Virginia election last November was an indictment of guns, and it was not an outlier,” said Christian Heyne, who leads legislative efforts at the gun violence prevention group Brady. “Virginia candidates flipped things on their head when they won because of the gun issue, not despite it. That is a fundamental shift.”

The state’s gun owners responded with a movement to create “sanctuary cities” for gun rights, with local government bodies passing declarations not to enforce new gun laws.

Since the November election, nearly all of Virginia’s 95 counties have some form of “sanctuary”, a term first used by localities opposed to harsh treatment of illegal immigrants.

The idea has quickly spread across the United States, with over 200 local governments in 16 states passing such measures.

President Donald Trump fanned the flames on Friday when he said the U.S. Constitution was being attacked in Virginia, where he was soundly defeated in 2016 by Hilary Clinton.

The NRA, which is not involved in organizing Monday’s rally, also blasted Virginia’s Democrats, who received campaign contributions last year of more than $2.5 million from Everytown for Gun Safety, started by former New York mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg.

“Anti-gun billionaires who invested millions in the 2019 Virginia elections expect a return on that investment,” said NRA official D. J. Spiker. “The NRA is fully prepared to work to defeat Governor Northam’s gun grab – but also work to find compromise.”

(Reporting by Brad Brooks; Additional reporting by Jonathan Drake in Richmond; Writing by Brad Brooks and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Clarence Fernandez and Daniel Wallis)

FBI arrests three alleged neo-Nazis ahead of Virginia gun rally

(Reuters) – The FBI has arrested three suspected members of a neo-Nazi group who had weapons and hopes of starting a U.S. race war, just days before a planned gun-rights rally in Virginia that was expected to draw thousands of people, officials said on Thursday.

The arrests came the day after Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency banning any weapons around the grounds of the state capitol in Richmond, saying investigators had seen groups making threats of violence.

The men were arrested in Maryland and were expected to make an appearance in federal court later Thursday, a source familiar with the investigation told Reuters.

Several thousand gun rights supporters are planning a large rally in Richmond, Virginia’s capital, on Monday in response to the newly Democratic-controlled state legislature’s push to stiffen gun laws.

Virginia, where Democrats took control of the legislature by promising stronger gun laws, has become the latest focal point for the contentious American debate around the right to bear arms. Many gun-rights groups contend the U.S. Constitution guarantees their ability to possess any firearm. Those opposed say gun laws would help lessen the number of people killed by guns each year.

According to a criminal complaint filed before the U.S. District Court for Maryland, the men arrested were Brian Mark Lemley Jr.; Patrik Jordan Mathews, a former Canadian military reservist; and William Garfield Bilbrough.

They are accused of interstate commerce of weapons and, in the case of Lemley and Bilbrough, harboring illegal aliens.

The three are allegedly members of the neo-Nazi group The Base. In the court filing, the FBI said it had monitored encrypted chats among the group’s members, in which they discussed creating a white ethno-state and carrying out acts of violence against minorities.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas, Mark Hosenball in Washington and Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Scott Malone)

Warning of ‘serious threats’ Virginia governor bans weapons at gun-rights rally

(Reuters) – Virginia Governor Ralph Northam on Wednesday said he would ban all firearms and other weapons around the state capitol building this weekend, ahead of a major gun-rights demonstration expected to draw thousands of people.

Northam, who is leading the push for stronger gun laws in his state, said he wants to avoid a repeat of violence that erupted at a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, when a march by white nationalists erupted and led to the death of a counterprotester.

Gun-rights advocates, including militia groups and ultraconservative activists, are planning a “Lobby Day” rally on Monday, seeking to block gun control legislation backed by Northam, a Democrat, whose party recently won majorities in both chambers of the state legislature.

“We’re seeing threats of violence. We’re seeing threats of armed confrontation and assault on our capitol,” Northam said. “These are considered credible, serious threats from our law enforcement agencies.”

Several measures – including universal background checks and “red flag” laws – that would toughen gun laws in the state are quickly making their way through the Senate and House, and could be passed before the end of the month.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League, which is organizing the rally, hopes that a large turnout by gun-rights proponents, most of whom will be openly carrying weapons as allowed by state law, will persuade lawmakers not to back the measures, according to materials posted online by the group.

“A substantial crowd will be here in Richmond,” State Police Superintendent Colonel Gary Settle told reporters on Wednesday. “We’re talking several thousands of people.”

Everyone attending Monday’s rally will be required to enter through a security checkpoint, authorities said.

Last week, Virginia lawmakers approved a new gun policy prohibiting firearms inside the Capitol and a nearby office building. But they did not extend the ban to Capitol Square, the public space outside that includes monuments to prominent Virginians and the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas, additional reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Scott Malone, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Neo-Nazi gets second life sentence in murder of protester in Virginia

FILE PHOTO: James Alex Fields Jr., 20, is seen in a mugshot released by Charlottesville, Virginia police department, Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. Charlottesville Police Department/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Gary Robertson

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) – A Virginia state judge on Monday sentenced a self-professed neo-Nazi to a second life prison term for killing a demonstrator when he drove his car into a crowd protesting against white supremacists in Charlottesville two years ago.

Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore sentenced James Fields, 22, to life plus 419 years, as recommended by the jury that found him guilty last December of murder plus eight counts of malicious wounding and a hit-and-run offense.

“Mr. Fields, you deserve the sentence the jury gave. What you did was an act of terror,” Moore said.

Fields, a resident of Maumee, Ohio, who appeared in court on Monday in striped prison garb, had already received a separate life sentence without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty in March to federal hate-crime charges stemming from the violence in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017.

Heather Heyer, 32, one of the counter-demonstrators, was killed in the attack, which also injured many others.

Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, said in a statement read in court on Monday that she hoped Fields finds reclamation in prison. “But I also hope he never sees the light of day outside of prison,” she said.

Statements by several victims were also read in court.

The deadly car-ramming capped a day of tension and physical clashes between hundreds of white nationalists and neo-Nazis who had gathered in Charlottesville for a “Unite the Right” rally, and groups of demonstrators opposed to them.

By the time of the car attack, police had already declared an unlawful assembly and cleared a city park of the white nationalists, who were there to protest removal of statues commemorating two Confederate generals of the U.S. Civil War.

The night before, “Unite the Right” protesters had staged a torch-lit march through the nearby University of Virginia campus chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans.

The events proved a turning point in the rise of the “alt-right,” a loose alignment of fringe groups centered on white nationalism and emboldened by President Donald Trump’s 2016 election. Trump was strongly criticized by fellow Republicans and by Democrats for saying after Charlottesville that “both sides” were to blame for the violence.

During the state court trial, Fields’ lawyers never disputed that Fields was behind the wheel of the Dodge Charger that sent bodies flying when the vehicle slammed into Heyer and about 30 other people. Instead, the defense suggested that Fields felt intimidated by the hostile crowds.

Prosecutors countered that Fields was motivated by hatred and had come to the rally to harm others. The defendant, who has identified himself as a neo-Nazi, was photographed hours before the car attack carrying a shield with an emblem of a far-right hate group.

Less than a month before the events in Charlottesville, he had posted an image on Instagram showing a car plowing through a crowd of people captioned: “You have the right to protest but I’m late for work.”

(Reporting by Gary Robertson in Charlottesville; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Leslie Adler)