Nathan Koppel and Ashby Jones, Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2011
The Louisiana Supreme Court is expected to hear a novel argument Monday in the long-standing debate over the legacy of the Confederate flag: Is it so prejudicial that its presence at the courthouse justifies overturning a murder conviction?
Felton Dorsey, an African American was sentenced to death in Shreveport, La., for killing Joe Prock, a white firefighter, during a robbery of the home of Mr. Prock’s mother.
Mr. Dorsey claims he is innocent and seeks to overturn the conviction on numerous grounds, including that prosecutors used unreliable accomplice testimony. But race is a central part of the appeal. Mr. Dorsey contends that prosecutors improperly removed most of the prospective black jurors from the case, resulting in a jury of 11 whites and one African American.
He claims to have suffered additional discrimination due to the Confederate flag that has flown outside the Caddo Parish courthouse in Shreveport since 1951.
Protests followed a decision last month from the board of commissioners in Dodge County, Ga., to fly the flag year-round outside the courthouse in honor of Confederate soldiers. Dodge County commissioner Archie Dupree Sr. declined to comment. In Palestine, Texas, a similar controversy arose last month after a county board of commissioners approved hoisting the flag outside a local courthouse; it was later taken down following complaints.
But it is rare, if not unprecedented, to claim that the flag justifies overturning a death sentence, they say, because it is difficult to find case-specific evidence that the flag had a discriminatory impact on a conviction.
Mr. Dorsey’s legal team believes it has just such evidence–the transcript of the jury selection in the case.
Carl Staples, a prospective black juror, was struck from the case by prosecutors after complaining about the flag.
The flag “is a symbol of one of the most . . . heinous crimes ever committed,” Mr. Staples said, according to court briefs. “You’re here for justice and then again you overlook this great injustice by continuing to fly this flag,” he added, calling the flag “salt in the wounds of . . . people of color.”
“When I was screened for the jury, it welled up inside of me and I expressed my feelings,” Mr. Staples said in an interview. A part-time radio engineer and announcer in Shreveport, he said, “I don’t understand how judges or lawyers allowed that flag to stand.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP’s Shreveport Chapter, and a group of university professors filed a court brief supporting Mr. Dorsey’s claim that the Confederate flag prejudiced his case and violated his due-process rights.
“This case will give the Louisiana Supreme Court an opportunity to send a message that a Confederate flag on courthouse grounds is intolerable,” said ACLU attorney Anna Arceneaux.
Charles McMichael, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Tennessee-based group that seeks to preserve the legacy of Confederate veterans, called it “idiotic” for Mr. Dorsey to try use the flag to overturn his conviction.