Judge orders Lee portrait to be removed from Louisa Circuit Courtroom

Judge Timothy Sanner ordered the large portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee and the United Daughters of the Confederacy plaque beneath it to be removed from the Louisa Circuit Courtroom by the end of the day on Sept. 23.  

A judge reversed his previous ruling today and ordered a portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee to be removed from the Louisa Circuit Courtroom.

Along with the portrait, which has hung in the courtroom since 1908, Judge Timothy Sanner ordered the removal of a United Daughters of the Confederacy plaque that hangs on the same wall and dates from 1916. 

“Given the significantly prevalent image of Robert E. Lee as a figure of racial hatred and prejudice, the Court is compelled to conclude that such image is unwelcoming to many of the African Americans, and others, who are compelled to appear in our courtroom as litigants, witnesses, jurors, attorneys and judges,” Sanner wrote in a letter filed with the court clerk.

His letter was addressed to attorneys representing Darcel Murphy, a Black man who is scheduled to go on trial on Sept. 28 for the murder of Kevin Robinson in March 2016. Murphy’s attorneys had argued that their client is less likely to get a fair trial in a courtroom in which a judge or jury will be able to see Lee’s portrait prominently displayed.  

Sanner said the portrait and plaque must be relocated by the end of the day on Sept. 23, “to be exhibited in such location and manner as best determined by the County of Louisa.”

The judge had previously issued a ruling in November 2019 that the Louisa County Board of Supervisors was better suited to decide the portrait’s fate, since they are elected officials. He noted in today’s letter that the board has taken no action since then.

“The Court can only infer that the Board has no intention of addressing the issue, or at least not in a fashion deemed timely by this Court,” he said.

County Attorney Helen Phillips advised Commonwealth’s Attorney Rusty McGuire in a July 15 letter that state law implies that the judge, not the supervisors, has the authority to remove the Lee portrait. The judge’s control appears to include the entire courthouse, Phillips said. 

Douglas Ramseur, Matthew Engle and Richard Johnson, Murphy’s attorneys, said in a written statement that they are pleased by the decision.

“We are elated that our client will no longer face trial in a courtroom that chooses to honor those who would oppress him solely because of the color of his skin,” the attorneys said. 

“Every member of the Louisa community who has come into that courtroom for the past century has been faced with this unwelcome symbol of prejudice and hatred. For too long, Black citizens of Louisa have questioned whether they could receive justice in a courtroom that chose to honor a person who fought to keep them enslaved. The fact that it was allowed to remain in a place of prominence for so long is indicative of the systemic racism that we can no longer tolerate in a just society.”

The defense team filed a renewed motion for the judge to order the portrait’s renewal in June, citing recent legal changes made by the Virginia General Assembly.

In his letter, Sanner agreed with the attorneys’ contention that political conditions had changed dramatically in Virginia, and across the country, since his initial ruling in the case. He cited the General Assembly’s votes to abolish Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday and to give localities the ability to remove Confederate monuments. The judge also noted comments made by state officials, including state Attorney General Mark Herring, about the proper place of Lee’s image in Virginia today.

“How do you tell a Black man or a Black woman that they’re going to get a fair and impartial trial when the entrance to the courthouse is literally blocked by a monument to a movement that sought to keep them enslaved?” Herring said on June 4.

Herring’s statement came as a wave of protests and street unrest erupted over the killing of a Black man in Minnesota by a police officer. In Richmond, these events led Gov. Ralph Northam to order the removal of Lee’s statue, although it has been delayed by a judge. The city’s mayor, Levar Stoney, ordered other prominent Confederate statues along the city’s Monument Avenue to be removed. 

Since then, several counties have debated whether to take down Confederate memorials. Caroline County’s board of supervisors voted on Aug. 25 to remove theirs from its location in front of the courthouse. Albemarle County’s board decided on Sept. 8 to give the Confederate soldier monument in front of the courthouse in Charlottesville to the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation.

In Louisa, a number of citizens have appeared before the board of supervisors in the past two months to encourage them to remove the Lee portrait and the Confederate monument outside the building. Some citizens have also urged the board to leave the monument where it is, and the two sides have offered different perspectives on the monument’s significance.

Sanner criticized some state and municipal officials, without naming them, for appearing to condone “criminal mayhem” directed at statues of Lee and other Confederate icons, despite their having legislative remedies to take them down. 

The judge turned down a request by Murphy’s attorneys to also remove from the courtroom portraits of Andrew J. Richardson, Clayton G. Coleman and Robert Lewis Dabney, all Confederate officers. 

“These portraits present few, if any, of the concerns of the Lee portrait,” Sanner wrote. “Each is in black and white, not in color, as is the Lee portrait. Each is not only substantially smaller, they are smaller than the typical portrait within the courtroom. The location of the portraits is not nearly as prominent. Neither Richardson nor Dabney are in uniform, as is Lee. 

“Clayton Coleman’s portrait depicts him in uniform,” Sanner continued. “However, the portrait is so dark that while one could reasonably conclude that it is a mid-nineteenth century military uniform, it is not apparent to the casual observer that it is a Confederate uniform.”

The three men also had substantial ties to Louisa County, unlike Lee, the judge said, outside of their wartime experience.

“Unlike General Lee, the Court finds nothing ‘iconic’ about them or their portraits.”

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