Judge Rules That Portraits Of White Jurists In Courtroom Harm Defendant’s Right To A Fair Trial

(ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

Marlo Safi Culture Reporter
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A northern Virginia judge ruled that a black defendant’s right to a fair trial would be impeded upon if the trial was held in a courtroom where portraits of white jurists are displayed.

Public defenders in Fairfax County representing Terrance Shipp, Jr. filed a “Motion to Remove Portraiture Overwhelmingly Depicting White Jurists Hanging in Trial Courtroom” over concerns that the portraits carried the risk of “fostering the perception of injustice or bias.” 

Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge David Bernhard ruled that Shipp’s trial would instead be held in a courtroom with no portraits on the wall. While the matter seems trivial, he wrote Sunday, he points to “a justice system where criminal defendants are disproportionately of color and judges disproportionately white,” which can make the portraits of white jurists appear to “favor a particular race or color.” (RELATED: REPORT: Public School District Holds Training Instructing White Teachers On How To ‘Bankrupt’ Their ‘Privilege’)

Bernhard said that his courtroom usually has no portraits, but due to the pandemic, trials were moved to the largest courtrooms of the Fairfax Circuit Court. Shipp faces charges of evading police and will appear for a criminal jury trial on Jan. 4.

The judge notes that 45 of the 47 portraits depict white judges, and while the portraits themselves are not emblematic of racism, they highlight the historical lack of black judges and may impart “subtle oppression” to defendants of color.

“We stand at a point in judicial history where the moment calls for heightened attention to the past inequities visited upon persons of color and minorities.”

Prosecutors offered no objection to the request, and Fairfax County’s chief public defender Dawn Butorac commended the decision as a “very, very, very small step in a long overdue journey to battle systematic racism” according to the Associated Press.

The ruling does not apply to other judges, who may evaluate the matter on their own.