Judge denies motion to remove Lee portrait

A Louisa County judge denied a motion in a murder case to remove a portrait of Robert E. Lee from the Louisa County Circuit Courthouse. 

In a Nov. 15 letter, Judge Timothy Sanner acknowledged a trend in some localities of removing statues and renaming public buildings and roads that honored Confederate figures. But he wrote that the issue is a political matter that should be addressed by the county’s elected leaders.

"The key thing to note about these actions is that, with rare exception, they were undertaken by elected boards of supervisors ... school boards, and other popularly elected bodies, and not judges who were not popularly elected," Sanner wrote. "These actions represented the collective will of the people as how these public figures should be addressed. The Court sees no basis to proceed any differently here in Louisa County."

Attorneys for Darcel Murphy, who faces the possibility of the death penalty if he is convicted for the murder of Kevin Robinson in March 2016, had argued that the portrait of the Confederate general in the courtroom could influence jurors during Murphy’s trial. Murphy is African American, as was Robinson.

The display of Confederate symbols “violate the defendant’s right to equal protection under the law,” lead attorney Douglas Ramseur wrote in his 2018 motion to remove the portrait. “There is no greater offense to the Equal Protection Clause [of the Constitution] than government favoritism of one race over another.”

Sanner agreed that the Lee portrait is much larger than any other portrait in the courtroom. But he described the image of Lee in his uniform, standing in front of a tree, as “benign.”

“The concern of the Defendant in this case is really not what this portrait depicts, but who it depicts,” he wrote. “Setting aside its subject, the portrait does not compromise the fair administration of justice.”

The judge said, referring to slavery, that “those who played an active role in defending the indefensible face substantial difficulty in escaping the harsh judgment of history.” 

But he also noted that many people admire “the real or perceived qualities of General Lee.” He noted that Lee is 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.

Louisa County government observes the holiday, Lee-Jackson Day, but Louisa County Public Schools does not.

The portrait was hung in the courtroom in 1908, during a period of history when statues and images of Confederate leaders such as Lee, Stonewall Jackson and others were placed in public locations throughout the South.

Murphy’s jury trial is scheduled to begin on March 16, 2020.