Two months ago Juane Dent, 27, a black Albemarle County man asked the chief magistrate here for an arrest warrant against a white deputy sheriff.
The deputy, Dent told the magistrate, had dragged him from his car and beaten him in a ditch following a car accident involving the deputy on a winding country road.
"Go home and think about iit." Dent later recalled the magistrate telling him. "We don't issue warrants against police officers."
The magistrate, D. D. Hudson, acknowledged in a telephone interview this week that he had known the 240-pound deputy for years, considered him to be a "very mild-mannered person." and said that if he had struck Dent in the face as alleged, Dent's face would have been badly marked. Race, said the magistrate, did not enter his mind.
But the Dent case has become a racial issue, nevertheless, galvanizing the 18,000-member black community of Albemarle County-home of libertarian Thomas Jefferson.
This week, black civic leaders, gathered beneath the pillared portico of Charlottesville's antebellum courthouse, said the problems they face are common throughout the South and remain substantially unchanged despite more than a decade of civil rights demonstrations.
Emotions increased on Thursday when Dents attorney, Sa'ad El-Amin, a young black activist from Richmond, was ordered before Judge Eaton Brooks and charged with contempt for remarks made on a local radio talk show in which he referred to Brooks' courtroom as a "kangaroo court."
Hours earlier Amin had filed a $200,000 class-action in suit in federal District Court in Charlottesville, charging the County Board of Supervisors, the deputy accused of beating Dent and Magistrate Hudson with a conspiracy to violate the rights of Albemarle County's blacks.
Plates were passed in black churches last Sunday to raise money for Dent's appeal. Black clerics said they see the case as a challenge to a statewide system that refuses in this case to issue a warrant on a block man's corn plaint for the arrest of a white.
"I'm sick and tired of black people not being able to arrest white people. We intend to make an example of this case. If we let this thing go down then Martin Luther King died in vain," said Sherman Randolph White, vice chairman of the 7th district Black Caucus and a writer for the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune.
Virginia magistrates are appointed to four-year terms by the chief judges of the state's circuit courts. Serving at the pleasure of the judge, they hold the key to the judicial system, deciding when to issue arrest and search warrants, and setting bail in criminal cases. The job, which pays from $12,000 to $17,000 a year, carries a residency requirement but does not require legal training.
In the 16th Judicial District, where Alemarle County is located, all 25 magistrates are white, according to Virginia Supreme Court data. Statewide, where 1 in 5 Virginians is black, 92 percent of the 410 magistrates are white. There is one black circuit court judge among the 107 chief Circut Court Judges.
The judges are appointed by the General Assembly, where there are at present 5 blacks among 140 members.
"I don't think it's an encouraging sign," said Virginia Attorney General Marshall Coleman of the figures. He acknowledged that Virginia's is "known to be a conservative system."
Coleman said there is a "greater sensitivity" in this area than in the past," but added that Virginia is "part of a movement nationwide that's playing catch-up ball. Here in Virginia, the process is only just beginning.
"It comes down to attitudes. These things don't die quickly," he said.
Meanwhile, the eye of Albemarle County's black community are on the Dent affair.
On June 11, Dent collided with a car he was trying to pass on twisting, two-lane, Old Stoney Point Road. The other car was driven by Earl Ohlinger, a part-time deputy sheriff who was then off duty and taking his family for a Sunday drive.
Dent eventually pleaded guilty to a charge of reckless driving in the incident, which police say was no more than a "fender-bender."
But Dent charged that Ohlinger walked back to his car "and started pulling me through the window, choking and beating me. He was on top of me in a ditch, beating me," Dent said in an interview.
Ohlinger "categorically denied" that he ever struck Dent. He called the racial overtones of the incident unfounded.
Dent went to Chief Magistrate Hudson, seeking on arrest warrant for assault and battery against Ohlinger, claiming that his lip was split and bleeding at the time, his head sporting a golf-ball-sized swelling.
Hudson, who said later he saw no evidence of any injury, denied the warrant.
"I know the individual that he claims beat him. He's a big man and a strong man who knows how to handle himself. I'm not at all sure I'd want to tangle with him. I frankly did not believe this man could strike him (Dent) in the face many times without leaving some evidence of it," Hudson said.
"I do not think there was probable cause to issue a warrant. If he wants to use that (race) as a crutch I can't stop him, but as far as I'm concerned, that's all it is."
Albemarle County Sheriff George Bailey, who conducted an investigation of the incident, cleared Ohlinger of any wrongdoing.
Amin, a flamboyant Richmond lawyer, has a generally recognized outspoken manner that has brought him before Virginia courts on contempt charges on nine occasions.
On Tuesday he was arrested in his Richmond office, again on charges of contempt, for failing to appear in Judge Brooks' court to defend Dent on the reckless driving charge.
Two days later speaking on the radio talk show in Charlottesville, Amin depicted Judge Brooks as "frothing at the mouth," and a "mad man."
Judge Brooks was listening to the broadcast.
As Amin left the radio station he was arrested by Virginia state police, who asked for and received from the radio station a tape recording of the broadcast, which was played in open court two hours later.
Amin was charged with violating the Virginia State Code, which makes it a crime to utter "vile, contemptuous, or insulting language" about a judge regarding in-court proceedings. If convicted, Amin faces a maximum of 10 days in jail and a possible fine of $50.
Amin predicted he would receive the maximum penalty from Judge Brooks, saying he was "faced with two accusers, the court and the commonwealth attorney working in tandem.
"I'm not the kind of man that will back down after being challenged," said Amin, calling the Dent case and his own contempt charges a "political trial."
One member of the County Board of Supervisors, who asked not to be identified, said he thought Amin's suit charging conspiracy to deprive Albemarle County blacks of their civil rights was "completely and wholly untrue.
"I can't conceive that race is an issue in Albemarle County," he said.