A Black defendant's right to a fair trial would be harmed if the jury heard the case in a courtroom lined with portraits of white jurists, a Northern Virginia judge has ruled.
The upcoming trial of Terrance Shipp on charges of eluding police will be held in a courtroom that has no portraits on the wall, said Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge David Bernhard.
Bernhard noted that his usual courtroom has no portraits. But jury trials that were postponed during the coronavirus pandemics are now being held in larger courtrooms. The walls of those rooms are lined with portraits of retired judges who are overwhelmingly white, he said.
Public defenders raised the issue in a motion titled “Motion to Remove Portraiture Overwhelmingly Depicting White Jurists Hanging in Trial Courtroom.”
“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,” Bernhard wrote in his ruling, issued Sunday.
He said 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.”
Bernhard said 45 of the 47 portraits hanging in the courtrooms are of white jurists.
Prosecutors offered no objection to the request, Bernhard said in his ruling.
Dawn Butorac, the chief public defender in Fairfax County, called the judge's ruling “a very, very, very small step in a long overdue journey to battle systemic racism” in the judicial system.
Shipp's trial is scheduled for Jan. 4. Bernhard's ruling does not affect whether other judges in the courtroom must take judicial portraits into account.
Earlier this year, a judge ordered a portrait of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee removed from a courtroom in Louisa County.
Bernhard was born in El Salvador and elected to the bench in 2017 by the state legislature.