The Louisiana Supreme Court late Wednesday recognized that the display of a Confederate flag outside the Caddo Parrish Courthouse might be offensive to some people. The court chose not to overturn the 2009 murder conviction and death sentence of Felton D. Dorsey and declined to fully consider the flag's influence on the capital punishment system because, among other reasons, Dorsey's lawyer failed to raise an objection to the flag's presence during his trial. The ruling nonetheless underscores the reality that flying the flag prevents criminal justice from being fairly administered, especially in death penalty cases, and invites trial courts in Caddo Parish to take a closer look at this issue in the future.
"There is no place for racial bias in the capital punishment system," said Anna Arceneaux, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Dorsey's behalf. "For many people, and particularly African-Americans, the flag is a stark reminder of the public entrenchment of racism in Caddo Parish's judicial system and is an endorsement of historical efforts to deny African-Americans equality under the law. The finding by the Louisiana Supreme Court that the flag is offensive to many people underscores the urgent need for it to be removed from outside of the courthouse. So long as it is allowed to fly, capital punishment cannot be fairly administered within the courthouse walls."
The ACLU, representing a broad coalition of Louisiana ministers, historians and law professors from around the world, and concerned Caddo Parish citizens, argued in May that Dorsey's conviction and sentence should be overturned because, among other reasons, the 11 whites and one African-American that comprised his jury walked past the flag dozens of times before rendering a verdict and voting on a sentence. Dorsey is African-American, and African-Americans comprise nearly half of Caddo Parish's population.
Carl Staples, a potential African-American juror, was struck by the prosecutor in Dorsey's case after expressing frustration with the systemic injustices inherent in the nation's criminal justice system. He highlighted the presence of the Confederate flag outside the courthouse as symbolizing the pernicious realities that serve to undercut his faith in the system.
In its brief, the ACLU argued that even if other African-American prospective jurors in Dorsey's case did not express similar concerns as Staples, at least some others were undoubtedly disturbed by the flag and may have sought to avoid jury service. African-American jurors who do serve on Caddo Parish juries may well be hesitant to return verdicts inconsistent with the principles the flag celebrates, especially in cases such as Dorsey's which involve an African-American defendant and a white victim.