Judge hears argument on portrait removal in Louisa
Defense attorney says Lee painting may cause prejudice
LOUISA — A lawyer for an African-American man charged with capital murder in Louisa County asked the judge Thursday to have a large portrait of Robert E. Lee removed from the courtroom prior to trial.
“The Civil War was really fought primarily over slavery and the racial supremacy of whites,” Douglas Ramseur, told Louisa County Circuit Judge Tim- othy K. Sanner.
“They painted him in his uniform to send a message ... to venerate the [Lost] Cause,” the lawyer added.
Ramseur is representing Darcel Nathaniel Murphy, who is facing a potential death sentence in the March 2016 slaying of Kevin Robinson, 43, who is also black.
The trial is scheduled to begin May 7. A motion filed last month by his lawyers asks that the trial not take place in the county’s Circuit Court courtroom unless the Lee portrait and other Confederate memorabilia are removed.
Louisa Commonwealth’s Attorney Rusty E. McGuire said his office was not taking a position in the matter.
On Thursday, Sanner declined to hear from witnesses called by Ramseur, instead asking that the witnesses offer affidavits to be sent to his office by Dec. 10. Sanner said it was a complex issue and that he will issue a written opinion after careful consideration.
Robinson’s sister Donna Washington, also African-American, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch last month that she opposes the request. She said that there is no racial issue involved and that she believes the request is an attempt to bias potential jurors.
Washington sat through Thursday’s hearing on the back row of spectator seating, not far from the Lee portrait.
Lee’s is the most prominent portrait inside the county’s only Circuit Court courtroom. The portrait faces directly toward the judge and can clearly be seen by jurors.
Although he didn’t hear from witnesses, because McGuire was not going to cross-examine them, the judge did allow Ramseur to argue his case for removal of the Confederate material.
Ramseur said he was not suggesting that the judge had any racial bias. However, he said the Lee portrait is symbolic to different people for different reasons.
“These are not just benign relics of the past,” he said. “Undeniably, many people see that portrait as a symbol of unequal protection under the law.
“Mr. Murphy comes into this courtroom ... hoping to receive equal protection under the law,” said Ramseur, but the defendant’s belief, and those of others, is shaken when he sees the portrait.
The defense lawyer added: “There is no legitimate need for the Robert E. Lee portrait to be here. ... Is it a museum, or is it a court of law?”
He said the risk of the portrait having a prejudicial effect outweighed any possible reason for it to be in the courtroom.
“Due process requires not just fairness, but the appearance of fairness,” he said.
Defense attorneys for Darcel Nathaniel Murphy argue that having a portrait of Robert E. Lee in the courtroom (as seen in a court filing) violates his constitutional rights. He is charged with capital murder.