Justice isn't always black and white, but for a judge in Virginia, the courtroom itself might be altogether too much on one side of the balance. Judge David Bernhard says he won't try a black suspect in a room full of portraits of white people. He believes it wouldn't be a fair trial.
Bernhard, presiding over a Fairfax courtroom in the 19th Circuit Court of Virginia, refused to hear the trial of Terrance Shipp Jr. in a chamber in which 45 of the 47 portraits on display featured white jurists. The defendant's right to a fair trial, said Bernhard, would be jeopardized by the presence of so many images of white people on the wall of the courtroom. He believes it indicates an inaccurate portrayal of the history of the American justice system, according to local news.
"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 said. "[The portraits] may serve as unintended but implicit symbols that suggest the courtroom may be a place historically administered by whites for whites."
Shipp, who was charged with eluding the police and assaulting an officer, will face a jury trial and could find himself behind bars anywhere from two years to ten years and face a fine of up to $100,000.
Bernhard's concern isn't that a sense of systemic oppression will be further propagated by the presence of the portraits but rather that they will unfairly prejudice onlookers—and juries—against an ethnically varied defendant. He released a court opinion clarifying his position.
"The broader concern is whether in a justice system, where criminal defendants are disproportionately of color and judges disproportionately white, it is appropriate for the symbols that ornament the hallowed courtrooms of justice to favor a particular race or color," Bernhard said.
The prosecution offered no objections to Bernhard's motion. Bryan Kennedy, Shipp's attorney and a senior assistant public defender, believes that the move to take the case to a different chamber is a small but tangible way of combatting a grim history against blacks in Virginia.
"Too often, the actors in the system do not look like the people who are swept up into it," Kennedy said. "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."
Shipp's hearing has since been re-scheduled to January 4 where he will face trail in a courtroom with fewer portraits.
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