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Justice Department Launches Civil Rights Investigation Into Charlottesville Attack


FBI agents are also on the ground in Charlottesville. They're conducting a civil rights investigation into that deadly car attack following the Unite the Right rally. Today, President Trump got an update from the Justice Department and the FBI.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend's racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered.

CORNISH: With us to talk more about the investigation is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: So what exactly are federal authorities looking into.

JOHNSON: Primarily, the motivations of that driver, James Fields. They're interviewing people who know him from Ohio, witnesses on the scene in Virginia, reviewing some electronic evidence. They want to know what kind of planning or preparation may have been underway before Fields allegedly attacked. But this civil rights investigation is not limited to the driver. Authorities want to know - did he have any help? And there's been a show of force from the Justice Department. The FBI is involved - federal civil rights prosecutors and the U.S. attorney for the western district of Virginia, too.

CORNISH: Right. I mean, Fields already faces a second-degree murder charge filed by the state. So why is the federal government putting so many different resources into this?

JOHNSON: The thinking is that civil rights crimes and hate crimes are different when people engage in violent acts because of race. The Justice Department held a hate crime summit in June. They said hate crimes are violent crimes. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions had some strong words about that on CBS this morning.


JEFF SESSIONS: We will not tolerate this kind of hatred and violence. We will not allow these extremist groups to obtain credibility. Morally, legally, they're unjustified in their actions and approach to American democracy. It cannot be countenanced.

CORNISH: So for this Justice Department, is there precedent for pursuing these kinds of cases?

JOHNSON: There is, Audie. Earlier this summer, the Trump Justice Department filed hate crime charges against a white man in Kansas who shot two Indian men in a bar. One of those men later died. And then maybe the biggest case - the feds charged and convicted Dylann Roof on hate crimes charges for killing nine black parishioners at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Remember, Dylann Roof said he wanted to start a race war. He's since been sentenced to death. And, importantly, one of his friends got charged by the federal government, too, for failing to blow the whistle, even though he knew about Roof's plans beforehand, telling others to keep quiet about it. That man, Joey Meek, was sentenced to 27 months in prison.

CORNISH: There's also been debate about whether the Charlottesville incident is an act of terrorism. What does the law actually say about that?

JOHNSON: Well, there is no federal statute for domestic terrorism, even though some FBI agents I've talked to would like to see one. In fact, there's something of a political tug of war about the threat posed by domestic terror - white supremacists - versus foreign terror groups like al-Qaida and ISIS. In the Obama years, the Justice Department had a task force for prosecutors on domestic terror. Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he gets three FBI briefings a week on terrorism. That includes terrorism from domestic groups.

And, believe it or not, just today, authorities have unveiled a new case in Oklahoma. They've charged a man with plotting to plant a huge bomb outside a bank there. The FBI says he referenced the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. That bombing killed 168 people - one of the largest terror attacks on American soil ever.

CORNISH: Before I let you go, there's been a lot of criticism of the Justice Department under Sessions about civil rights. And does anything tell us about how they behave this weekend, in terms of coming out and speaking and how long it took?

JOHNSON: Audie, there has been some criticism that the Justice Department took several hours on Saturday - the day of the car attack - to announce a federal civil rights investigation. That said, once Jeff Sessions did announce an investigation and mobilized resources, he's been quite firm in calling for a return to law and order, which is a theme we've heard from him in multiple contexts this year.

CORNISH: That's NPR's justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ JAZZY JEFF SONG, "FOR DA LOVE OF DA GAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.