In spring 2009, a Caddo Parish, La., prosecutor struck Carl Staples from the pool of potential jurors in the capital murder trial of Felton Dejuan Dorsey.
Staples was not removed from the jury pool because he opposed the death penalty. Rather, the prosecutor dismissed Staples after he expressed reservations about serving as a juror in a building whose courtyard features a prominently displayed Confederate flag.
“[The flag] is a symbol of one of the most … heinous crimes ever committed to another member of the human race,” Staples, who is black, told the judge. “You’re here for justice, and then again you overlook this great injustice by continuing to fly this flag which … put[s] salt in the wounds of … people of color. I don’t buy it.”
That summer, a jury of 11 white people and one black person found Dorsey guilty of first degree murder and recommended he be sentenced to die by lethal injection. Dorsey is black. The victim was white.
The population of Caddo Parish is around 50% black, but court records show that the white prosecutor in Dorsey’s case struck potential jurors who were black at three times the rate he struck potential jurors who were white.
Dorsey appealed the case all the way to Louisiana’s high court. He was joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend of the court brief arguing that the flag’s presence imperiled justice in two ways: First, by excluding jurors like Carl Staples, and second, by “implicitly encouraging courthouse participants to treat African-American defendants and victims as second-class citizens.” The court on Sept. 7 upheld Dorsey’s conviction and sentence on procedural grounds – but conceded in its decision “that the display of a confederate flag would be offensive to some.”
For that reason, attorney Anna Arceneaux, who is counsel for the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, remains optimistic. “We fully expect that trial judges and defense attorneys in the future are going to be objecting, and frankly after this decision there’s no reason not to,” she told the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We’re hopeful that in the future when [the issue] is better preserved in a way that’s satisfactory to the Louisiana Supreme Court that they will take a stand that the presence of the Confederate flag is intolerable in death penalty case.”
In its brief, the ACLU cited academic research showing that “exposure to the Confederate flag increased the expression of negative attitude toward African-Americans among whites.” Regardless, removing the emblem that flaps in front of Caddo County’s courthouse will likely be an uphill battle, for the Confederate flag is a contentious issue across the South. Its defenders claim that it’s a symbol of “heritage, not hate” – but as Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic points out, “the question isn’t “Do you hate black people?” It isn’t “Would you invite a black person to your barbecue?” It’s “Are you more offended by black people who recoil in horror at the Confederate flag, than you are by the flag’s history?”
Only two weeks ago, officials in the city of Lexington, Va., voted to ban the flying of Confederate flags on poles owned by the city. The Southern Heritage group Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) is promising to fight the ordinance in court. Around the same time, the Georgia chapter of the SCV hoisted three enormous Confederate battle flags on private land along that state’s highways. The largest reportedly measures 30 by 50 feet.
Two years ago, Bishop Arthur Dowdell, an elected member of the Auburn, Ala., City Council and its only black member, was formally condemned by his fellow council members after removing four of the dozens of flags the United Daughters of the Confederacy had placed at a cemetery in honor of Confederate Memorial Day, a state holiday in many Southern states.
The Southern Poverty Law Center in 1993 won a suit to remove the battle flag that had flown atop the Alabama Capitol building since 1963, when arch-segregationist Gov. George Wallace raised it as a symbol of defiance. In 2000, the secessionist League of the South (LOS), a neo-Confederate hate group, rallied in Alabama and several other states to demand flag’s return.
And South Carolina flew the battle flag on its capitol from 1962 till 2000, when, following a major protest led by the NAACP, it became the last state to end the practice. A Confederate flag still flies atop a 30-foot pole in front of the building. This July, the NAACP renewed its objections, asking South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is of Indian descent, to remove the emblem entirely. Her spokesman told the media, “Revisiting that issue is not part of the governor’s agenda.”