“The Court is compelled to conclude that the level of controversy surrounding the image of Robert E. Lee is sufficiently intense that it is foreseeable that it may impair the fair administration of justice,” wrote Louisa County Circuit Court Judge Timothy K. Sanner in a decision Thursday.
Dethroning the largest portrait in the Louisa courtroom took two years of legal wrangling, which started after a man facing a capital murder charge asked for its removal.
The portrait is the latest Confederate relic to be taken down this year amid national protests calling for racial justice. Legal experts say it is a highly unusual, if not unprecedented, instance of a judge ordering a symbol of the Confederacy removed on behalf of a defendant.
Jin Hee Lee, the senior deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, commended the removal, saying it is a necessary step in addressing larger systemic inequalities in the criminal justice system.
“If you enter a courtroom and see a portrait of Robert E. Lee, it immediately makes it a place not welcoming to members of the Black community,” she said. “And oftentimes, that is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Sanner ordered the portrait removed by the county no later than Sept. 23.
Long before George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police and racial unrest spilled into small towns nationwide, Doug Ramseur walked into the circuit courtroom in Louisa to be appointed as an attorney for Darcel Murphy, a 33-year-old Black man facing a capital murder charge. To his surprise, a towering homage to Lee stared back.
“Whoa, that is not appropriate,” he recalled thinking to himself at the time, positioned between his Black client and a general who promoted segregation.
Ramseur would later learn that the portrait was as old as the pillared courthouse itself, commissioned around 1906 by a committee of local officials who wanted to honor Lee. It was long past time, Ramseur and his client decided, to remove symbols of the Confederacy from the halls of justice.
In 2018, Ramseur filed a motion arguing that Murphy should be tried in a courtroom without images “that could be interpreted as glorifying, memorializing, or otherwise endorsing the efforts of those fought on behalf of the Confederate cause or its principles.”
But the changing tide of public opinion had not yet turned on Lee with the same intensity seen in recent months, and reigning reverence for the former general was reflected in the judge’s initial ruling on the matter.
Sanner said it was a political, not judicial, responsibility to determine if and how Lee should be publicly honored. He also cited public appreciation for the former general as grounds for his prominence in the courtroom.
“There are many who admire the real or perceived qualities of General Lee,” he wrote in his November 2019 decision, referencing the Virginia state holiday in Lee’s honor. “Being so honored makes a compelling case for the inclusion of the portrait.”
Months later, from the former capital of the Confederacy, the Virginia Senate voted to abolish the Lee-Jackson holiday in favor of an Election Day holiday. By June, the swelling movement for racial justice had coalesced around removing statues of Lee, casting the former general as representative of the Confederate’s racist ideology. His statue was removed from the Virginia Capitol one night in July.
With his longtime case suddenly aligned with the national zeitgeist, Ramseur renewed and refiled the motion in June. Three months later, Sanner ruled in his favor, citing changing public opinion and a recent amendment that gave localities control over the disposition of war memorials.
“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,” he wrote in his decision Thursday.
County Administrator Christian Goodwin said in a statement that the court’s “direction is mandatory” and that he could not comment about whether the portrait has been removed yet.
“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,” Murphy’s attorneys said in a statement Thursday. “Judge Sanner’s decision makes clear that we must continue to dismantle the racist symbols and institutions that have sought to pervert our legal system in order to oppress racial minorities.”
Murphy’s next court appearance is set for Sept. 28, when he will face a bench trial in the fatal shooting of a 42-year-old man — without a Confederate general in the room.