Robert E. Lee portrait causing controversy in court

Updated: Nov. 13, 2018 at 10:45 PM EST
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LOUISA, VA (WWBT) - A portrait of General Robert E. Lee in his confederate uniform faces the judge’s bench and overlooks the entire Louisa County courtroom. Images of three Louisa men who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War hang alongside Lee. Below Lee’s portrait is a certificate from the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

It’s why this motion was filed last week on behalf of Darcel Murphy, an African American man charged with capital murder. It’s asking a judge to protect Murphy’s constitutional rights by allowing his trial to move forward in a courtroom free of confederate images.

“These are terribly important concerns,” said defense attorney Steve Benjamin.

Benjamin is not connected to this case, but said the merits of the motion are unquestionable and not just on behalf of the defendant.

“It would be equally important the spectators of the trial or to the jury members, any one of whom may be equally offended or upset," Benjamin said. “Whenever you have a serious trial, especially a capital trial, the judges of Virginia know they should do everything in their power to avoid an appearance of partiality."

The motion says the portrait was selected in 1908 by a committee. Then Commonwealth’s Attorney Reubin Gordon was on that committee, he said “We do not believe the colored man is the equal to the white man....We do not believe that the only difference between the negro and the white man is the color of skin.”

The motion goes on to say, “The presence of the painting, in view of the judge and the jury, introduces the risk of impermissible factors such as latent biases, prejudices and sympathies for the confederate cause...”

“It can be sometimes impossible to measure the effect of influence of something like that, how do you know?” Benjamin questioned.

That’s why Benjamin said this issue must be addressed, especially in a case of possible life or death. A judge is expected to make a decision in the next month after reviewing written affidavits.

“The judge will act,” Benjamin said. “That’s his duty, that’s his job to do everything he can to ensure the appearance of a neutral courtroom free of prejudice.”

Benjamin said if the judge denies the motion, and then the defendant is convicted, it could open the door to appeals based on this issue.

This issue is not exactly new. A judge in Patrick County had a portrait of a confederate General J.E.B. Stuart removed when faced with similar circumstances.

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