Fairfax judge says portraits of white judges could be bias towards defendant

Keydra Manns

In September, another judge ordered that an image of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee be removed before a murder trial involving a defendant who was Black

A Virginia judge is making changes in his courtroom.

Judge David Bernhard of Fairfax County Circuit Court wrote an opinion letter stating Black defendants cannot receive a fair trial in a courtroom filled with portraits of white judges. In the letter that went out Monday, he also said he will not allow such portraits to hang during trials he is proceeding over, per The Washington Post.

The letter is in response to the case of Terrance Shipp Jr., a man who is being charged on several counts including assault on a law enforcement officer and eluding police. His trial is set for  Jan. 4.

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“Too often, the actors in the system do not look like the people who are swept up into it,” said senior assistant public defender and attorney for Shipp, Bryan Kennedy.

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He added, “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.”

But everyone does not agree that removing the portraits will make a difference.

“Notwithstanding the presence or absence of portraits in a courtroom, I believe judges and juries have the ability to be fair and objective,” said Republican and defense attorney Mark Dycio.

In September, a Louisa County, Va judge ordered that an image of Confederate General Robert E. Lee be removed before a murder trial involving a defendant who was Black.

“The Court is concerned the portraits may serve as unintended but implicit symbols that suggest the courtroom may be a place historically administered by whites for whites, and that thus others are of a lesser standing in the dispensing of justice,” Bernhard wrote. “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.”

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