Plaintiffs in a lawsuit stemming from Charlottesville City Council votes to remove two downtown statues of Confederate generals have requested a change of venue, citing potential jury bias and problems with the courtroom itself.
The lawsuit, filed by the Monument Fund in March 2017, claims the council violated a state code section in 2016 that bans the removal of war memorials when it voted to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee. The suit was later amended to also include the city’s statue of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The city, the city council and three current and two former councilors are named as defendants.
In a recent filing, attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that an unbiased jury would be hard to come by due to the nature of the defendants’ work as city councilors.
“Simply asking jurors drawn from Charlottesville’s voter list: ‘who voted for one of the Defendants?’ — nine out of ten would raise their hands,” the complaint claims.
Current councilors Wes Bellamy, Kathy Galvin and Mike Signer, along with former Councilors Bob Fenwick and Kristin Szakos are all specifically named as defendants.
Unlike the trial of James Alex Fields Jr. — a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi who was found guilty of first-degree murder in the brutal Aug. 12, 2017, vehicular attack that killed a counterprotester at the Unite the Right rally — a change of venue is appropriate for the statues case, the plaintiffs say.
“This case differs markedly from the Fields trial,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys write. “Mr. Fields was a stranger from out of town. Jurors had no predisposition about him.”
Fields’ attorney had filed motions for a change of venue prior to his trial in Charlottesville Circuit Court last winter, arguing that an impartial jury could not be found due to the widespread effects of Fields’ actions. Judge Richard E. Moore — the same judge who is presiding over the statues lawsuit — said he believed an unbiased jury could be seated and allowed the trial to continue in Charlottesville. It took several days, but a jury was seated.
Another concern tied to the plaintiffs’ qualms about the venue is the courtroom itself, which they argue is physically unsuited for hearing such a case. Among the physical concerns outlined in the complaint are the small size of the courtroom, lack of accessibility and high temperatures in the older building.
“The air conditioners are too loud for the judge, the jury, and especially the hearing impaired to hear over,” the complaint reads. “But without air conditioning the stifling overheated room risks the health of those like Plaintiff Frank Earnest with cardio-pulmonary disease.”
The complaint goes on to suggest that the building might not meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Since January, the Charlottesville Circuit Court has been occupying a temporary space in the Levy Opera House building while the main circuit court building is being renovated. The renovations could take anywhere between 14 and 18 months, Clerk of Court Llezelle Dugger said in December. The $5.3 million project will turn approximately half of the records room into a second courtroom, Dugger said, allowing the court to better work through its backlog of cases.
The building also will be brought up to ADA compliance thanks to the installation of an elevator.
The defendants have yet to file a response and no further hearing dates have been set. A tentative trial date has been set for September.