A Virginia judge recently ruled that a black defendant’s right to a fair trial would be violated because the courtroom was filled with portraits of white people.
Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge David Bernhard ruled that Terrance Shipp Jr’s upcoming trial of charges of eluding police, assault on a law enforcement officer, and other counts will be held in a courtroom that has zero portraits on the wall. Public defenders raised this issue in a motion, which they called “Motion to Remove Portraiture Overwhelmingly Depicting White Jurists Hanging in Trial Courtroom.” 45 of the 47 portraits are of white jurists.
“While to some the issue of portraits might be a trivial matter, to those subject to the justice system it is far from the case,” said Bernard in his ruling.
He was concerned that the portraits “may serve as unintended but implicit symbols that suggest the courtroom may be a place historically administered by whites for whites.”
“The Defendant’s constitutional right to a fair jury trial stands paramount over the countervailing interest of paying homage to the tradition of adorning courtrooms with portraits that honor past jurists,” said Bernard.
Shipp’s attorney, Bryan Kennedy said that Virginia’s legal system has a long history of “racial bias.”
“Too often, the actors in the system do not look like the people who are swept up into it,” said Kennedy. “This ruling is a start to ensure the optics in our courtrooms are more consistent with justice, but more work is needed to improve the substance as well as the appearance of justice.”
Kennedy was concerned that Shipp’s trial would be held in a courtroom that has a portrait of former Virginia Supreme Court Justice Harry Carrico, who wrote the opinion upholding the state’s ban on interracial marriage in 1966, which was later struck down in the Supreme Court.
Prosecutors did not object to the request. Dawn Butorac, the chief public defender in Fairfax County praised the ruling, calling the decision to move the case to a room without portraits of white people “a very, very, very small step in a long overdue journey to battle systemic racism” in the judicial system.”
Steve Knotts, Chairman of the Fairfax County GOP, said that Bernard’s decision was regrettable and showed the tendency of liberals to view only the race of people.
“Judge Bernhard seems to have embraced this reductive, racialist view of his fellow man,” Knotts said in a statement to the Washington Post. “We’d all do well to remember that, whether we are Black or White, Christian or Jewish, immigrant or native-born, we are all equally human. As a culture, we must reject all divisive ideologies and, instead, unambiguously affirm our shared humanity.”
Mark Dycio, a well-known Virginia defense attorney, said that he thought that judges and juries were unaffected by what art is present in courtrooms.
“Notwithstanding the presence or absence of portraits in a courtroom, I believe judges and juries have the ability to be fair and objective,” Dycio said to the Washington Post.