What a Portrait of General Robert E. Lee Means for One Man’s Capital Trial

Anyone walking into the sole courtroom in the town of Louisa, Virginia, is met by an array of portraits covering nearly every square inch of the walls. Overwhelmingly they feature white men. Though on first glance, most of them are not recognizable, one is unmistakable. It’s a looming image that dominates the back wall of the courtroom, directly across from the judge. The portrait is of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, in uniform, sword unsheathed at his side.

The presence and prominence of Lee’s portrait in a courthouse in Louisa County speak to the kinds of bias found in courts of law across the country, and it demands reflection on and analysis of those biases.

Since the end of the Civil War, Lee has come to symbolize a society premised on white supremacy that intrinsically promotes the dehumanization of people of color, specifically of Black people. Lee’s image and name blemish public spaces throughout the United States, but they are particularly prevalent in the former slave states of the Confederacy. When a symbol of white supremacy appears in a public space charged with the administration of justice, it visually endorses a two-tiered legal system premised on differentiating the value of lives based on race.  

This warped weighing can have a particularly disastrous consequence in a case where the death penalty is on the table. In Louisa, Darcel Murphy, a Black defendant, is facing a trial for his life in the courtroom housing this menacing reminder of our nation’s legacy of racialized violence. As Murphy’s attorney argued last week, in support of his previously filed motion, he should not be forced to endure a proceeding tainted by the insidious effect of Confederate symbols, memorials, and iconography.

Unless the judge grants the motion, Murphy will be tried in an environment ripe for improper considerations of race.  

Racial bias is a known problem in capital cases, one clearly apparent in the pervasive discrimination against Black jurors. In studies conducted across the country, from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, a clear and concerning pattern emerges of Black potential jurors being disproportionately excluded from juries compared to white potential jurors. Even if selected for Murphy’s case, Black jurors would be forced to serve under the shadow of the portrait’s ever-present reminder that Black people in America have long faced violence for attempting to participate in civic life.

Studies have also shown that Black defendants like Murphy are already at risk that racial bias could infect their trial. Any amount of risk that a jury faced with this gravest of decisions could be influenced by a symbol of white supremacy is too high. And in a trial where both the victim and defendant are Black, any suggestion that Black lives are to be valued less, the core principle of the Confederacy, has the potential to do great harm. Communities of color are over-policed, over-criminalized, and brutalized every day in our nation, and the courts should not perpetuate this injustice by diminishing the value of Black lives.  

The impact of this portrait is not limited to Murphy’s trial. It signals to everyone who enters the courtroom, whether as participants or observers, that Louisa has failed to grapple and come to terms with this country’s painful history. Whether defendants are facing a misdemeanor or a capital charge, they deserve to have the proceeding take place in an environment free from racial bias. Louisa owes Mr. Murphy and all others who enter the courtroom the assurance that racial bias in any form is unacceptable and that an interest in maintaining the status quo does not trump an interest in the equal distribution of justice.

The judge, in this case, holds the immediate power to deal a decisive blow to racial bias by denouncing this symbol of the Confederacy. For justice to be real in Louisa County, the portrait must come down.

View comments (9)
Read the Terms of Use

Anonymous

A. allegedly it's a jury of his 'peers' but no where in the population of white supremacists are they his 'peers' and there fore they should be automatically excluded as they are already historically guilty of bias
B. as a sidebar...ALL representations of the Confederacy should be moved and / or sequestered in some museum...for those who want to perpetuate that history of slavery to reveal themselves by visiting, after all...they were traitors to the u.s. by rebelling and fighting against it...we don't keep monuments to Benedict Arnold...why should we keep one to ANY of the Confederacy...we don't keep monuments here to Hitler, Hussein, or any other enemy of america, why should we keep / celebrate Confederates ANYwhere in the u.s. They were our enemies.

Anonymous

exactly right. NOBODY has monuments to the opponent/loser. there's no Napoleon statues in Trafalgar Square, no monuments to Hitler in Poland, Mussolini has no portraits in Italian Courts., and the swastika is no longer on Norwegian Flags.

ONLY in America do we allow southern "pride" in slavery, murder, losing & treason.

Dr. Joseph Goebbels

There is a simple solution to the situation, just hang a portrait of Malcom X in every courtroom in America so the African-American defendants can feel good about themselves.

Anonymous

Even simpler solution would be for you to pickup a book and realize that your worldview LOST in 1865.

Dr. Joseph Goebbels

What? Don't you like Malcom X?

Jacqueline Davis

How ignorant of you to suggest such a thing . If humor was what you were attempting, you failed. Instead you revealed your stupidity . It's my hope that you're simply an idiot internet troll and not an actual practicing physician .

1st Republic 14...

Well, OBVIOUSLY Lee once served as judge of the Louisa County court, so the county fathers just want to honor and pay tribute to a respected local jurist. I mean, what other reason could there be?

Anonymous

100% inappropriate that this portrait be hung in honor of the General leading a rebellious army in defense of Slavery and dehumanization of black people. 100% should be publicized, agitated against, and removed. Post above hits the nail on the head: Hitler belongs in museums, not in public squares (unlike Russia, where their genocidal communist dictators are still worshiped as heroes)

But the legal theory here is just... huh? The portrait being hung in the courthouse somehow biases the jury because... they see the portrait and suddenly become racist when they weren't before??? Now, probably this is the only way a litigant could get standing, but seriously, does the ACLU even check if their cases pass the laugh test anymore? I mean... sure, even bring the case... but by putting on blast that you're bringing it you just contribute to this whole "the left are delicate little snowflakes who can't handle their feeeeeeeelings" narrative.

Our nation is based in a robust forum in which stupid and evil institutions are destroyed by exposure to public scrutiny. Justice is delayed, it's unsatisfying, it's a grudging march toward progress, but it's still progress. Turning to the courts, time and time again, is such a misstep. In the world where Brett Kavanaugh is a supreme court justice, one would hope the left would begin to assess it's legitimization of judicial fiat to bypass democracy (a strategy that has done far more to damn us to continued regressive ideas than promote progress).

SMH.

CHARLENE Sullins

I am hurt and appalled that ACLU Fred Farrar wants Northam to tear down Robert E. Lee's beautiful monument. Robert E. Lee and the average confederate soldier weren't fighting for slavery, their leaders got them into it. Lee didn't want union forces invading his home across the Potomac and couldn't go against his state. He founded Washington & Lee University, the law school there and the first journalism school in the country. His and Stonewall Jackson's war strategies are studied in military institutes across the country and you do not want him remembered. What a shame you want to destroy white history?

Stay Informed