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Battle over courtroom portrait of Robert E. Lee renewed in Louisa County

Battle over courtroom portrait of Robert E. Lee renewed in Louisa County

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Louisa courtroom

Defense attorneys for Darcel Nathaniel Murphy argued that having a portrait of Robert E. Lee in the courtroom (as seen in a court filing) violates Murphy’s constitutional rights.

A judge is expected to rule soon on a request to remove the portrait of Robert E. Lee from its prominent position in a Louisa County courtroom.

Initiated in 2018, the effort predates many of the current attempts in Richmond and across Virginia to remove monuments and other public memorials honoring the general and other Confederate figures.

Lawyers for Darcel Murphy, a Black man facing a capital murder trial in Louisa County Circuit Court beginning Sept. 28, are asking a second time that Circuit Court Judge Timothy K. Sanner have the portrait and other Confederate displays be removed or that the trial be held elsewhere.

Defense lawyer Douglas Ramseur argued in his renewed motion that the painting is, “a symbol which has been found to be offensive and objectionable by so many Virginians and a figure who has been publicly condemned by the Governor and General Assembly.”

Murphy faced a potential death sentence when the portrait objection was first made in 2018 and when the renewed request was filed in June.

Murphy is charged with the March 2016 slaying of Kevin Robinson, 43, who is also Black. Donna Washington, the victim’s oldest sister, told the Times-Dispatch in 2018 that she opposed the portrait removal effort. She said that there is no racial issue involved and that she believes the request is an attempt to bias potential jurors.

Ramseur said that last month an agreement was reached with prosecutors to take the death penalty off the table and that the case will be tried before Sanner and not a jury. Nevertheless, Ramseur said he still wants the trial held without the portrait, the largest portrait in the courtroom.

Louisa County commonwealth’s attorney’s office said earlier at a hearing that it has not taken a position on the portrait question. Commonwealth’s Attorney Rusty McGuire declined to comment this week.

In a three-page ruling last November, Sanner turned down the initial request to have the portrait taken down, noting, in part, the Virginia at the time, still had a state holiday in Lee’s honor.

“Those who played an active role in defending the indefensible face substantial difficulty in escaping the harsh judgment of history,” wrote Sanner.

However, the judge added, “there are many who admire the real or perceived qualities of General Lee. The most significant representation of that admiration is the fact that he is one of the few individuals, Virginian or otherwise, who have received the honor of having a Virginia 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,” wrote Sanner.

Sanner also wrote that he believed such a decision would more appropriately be made by the Louisa County Board of Supervisors and not the courts.

This March, however, Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation passed by the General Assembly eliminating the holiday that honored Lee and Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate general.

“The compelling case for inclusion of Lee’s portrait has now disappeared and been replaced by an equally compelling case for it to be excluded,” wrote Ramseur.

He added, “The very public elimination and repudiation of the Lee holiday makes a powerful argument for the reconsideration and reversal of the Court’s prior ruling.”

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