There Louisiana Supreme Court will hear a death penalty challenge today that has been driven by the presence of a Confederate flag atop the Caddo Parish Courthouse in Shreveport, La. A black juror who refused to serve in a death penalty trial because of the flag's presence is teaming up with local and national civil rights organizations to appeal a conviction in the case, arguing that the flag proves bias in the justice system.
The prospective black juror, named Carl Staples, had refused to participate during jury selection in the trial of Felton Dorsey, saying that he was outraged by the sight of the Confederate flag in the courthouse lawn. According to the Louisiana Justice Institute, after Staples' outcry, the judge granted the prosecutor the opportunity to remove him from the jury. The prosecutor then proceeded to strike five out of the remaining seven qualified black prospective jurors.
The defense argued that the strikes were racially discriminatory, in violation of the Supreme Court's decision in Batson v. Kentucky, a 1986 ruling that found that prosecutors may not dismiss jurors based on race. However, the judge rejected the defense's challenge. The ACLU will argue today that the subsequent conviction should be overturned.
"In a community that is 48 percent black, the tendency has been that only one black person is allowed to serve on the jury," charges Ben Cohen of the Capital Appeals Project, who is also working on the case. "Louisiana courts have been unwilling to address the claims of racism--that's why things like the Confederate flag are still flying out."
According to the ACLU, Staples made a similar case to the court when he refused to serve, arguing:
[The flag is] a symbol of one of the most . . . heinous crimes ever committed to another member of the human race, and I just don't see how you could say that, I mean, 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.
"Allowing it to fly outside the Caddo Parish courthouse sends a clear statement that capital punishment cannot be fairly administered within the courthouse walls," said ACLU Staff Attorney Anna Arceneaux, according to KSLA news (See the ACLU's amicus brief here.)
The ACLU, along with a coalition of other civil rights groups and local protesters, rallied on May 3 for the removal of the flag. They were joined by Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, who called Staples "the Rosa Parks of the criminal justice system, the juror who would not serve under a Confederate flag."
Chuck McMichael, who's part of the conservative group Sons of Confederate Veterans, said that people who think the flag is racist are wrong. He told KSLA that the flag's purpose is simply to commemorate veterans who fought in the Confederacy. McMicheal thinks the issue at hand is tolerance, and that "maybe a little bit more tolerance of what other people wish to commemorate" is in order.
The Louisiana Justice Institute has documented that the Justice system in Louisiana has not been blind to race. Caddo Parish has among the highest rates of death sentences in Louisiana. And out of 17 men and one woman sentenced to death, 14 of them have been black.