Lee portrait again under scrutiny

The Robert E. Lee portrait in the Louisa Circuit Courthouse has hung on the wall since 1908. Attorneys for a Black man set to be tried for murder say the portrait threatens his Constitutional rights.

Attorneys for a man about to go on trial for his role in a March 2016 murder renewed their call to remove a portrait of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Louisa Circuit Court, citing recent legal changes made by the Virginia General Assembly.

Darcel Murphy’s legal team also pointed to a move by Governor Ralph Northam to relocate a statue of Lee from Monument Avenue in Richmond, and public statements by him and Attorney General Mark Herring on the issue.

“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.

Murphy’s attorneys say that his client is less likely to get a fair trial in a courtroom in which the jury will be able to see Lee’s portrait prominently displayed. The general appears in his Confederate uniform in the portrait, which was unveiled in 1908.

Judge Timothy Sanner said in a written statement last fall that the decision on whether to remove the portrait should be left to the Louisa County Board of Supervisors. He noted that Lee was one of the few individuals to have a state holiday observed in their honor.

“It is difficult for the Court to accept that nothing other than the implied original and continuing racism of the Virginia General Assembly supports that distinction,” Sanner wrote.

However, as of July 1, the state no longer observes Lee-Jackson Day. The General Assembly voted to make Election Day, in November, a state holiday instead. 

Douglas Ramseur, Murphy’s lead attorney, requested in his new motion that Lee’s portrait be removed from the courtroom, but also any “symbols, memorials, displays and portraits that could be perceived as supporting or endorsing the Confederate cause or any of its supporters.” Alternatively, Ramseur wrote, a new location for the trial should be found.

The trial is scheduled to begin on Sept. 28 and could last up to one month. Murphy is charged with the capital murder of Kevin Robinson in his house on Oakland Road. If Murphy is convicted, he could face the death penalty.

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