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?
The case involves an attempt to overturn a 2009 death sentence against a black defendant on grounds that flying the flag outside a state courthouse was prejudicial to his case.
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.
“The quintessential symbol of white supremacy looms over the courthouse,” he said in his appellate brief.
For some in the South, the Confederate flag is a reminder of slavery. For others, the flag serves as a neutral memorial to Civil War veterans, and it has been the subject of many political and legal challenges in the South over the years.
Critics say it demeans blacks, while defenders see it as an important historical symbol, and contend it deserves free-speech protection.
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.
Several courts in the past decade have dealt with cases brought by students who claimed their free-speech rights were violated after they were suspended from school for wearing clothes adorned with depictions of the flag. Generally, courts have ruled that school administrators can restrict students from displaying the flag, in order to remove the threat of violence.
Confederate flags are located near a small number of courthouses in the South, according to lawyers and civil-rights advocates.
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.”
Cecelia Trenticosta, counsel to Mr. Dorsey, said she previously had considered challenging the Confederate flag in Caddo Parish but had not because she never had a case where someone had complained on the record about the flag. “This flag has been flying for 60 years, and a brave citizen finally spoke up and said the emperor is naked,” said Ms. Trenticosta, who specializes in death-penalty appeals.
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.
Suzanne Owen, a lawyer with the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s Office who is defending the conviction, did not return calls for comment.
In an appellate brief, the District Attorney’s Office denied that prosecutors discriminated against blacks in assembling the jury. The brief does not address the Confederate flag.
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.
“I don’t care if there had been the Barnum & Bailey Circus, the Space Shuttle or whatever in front of the courthouse, he would have still gotten the death penalty.” Mr. McMichael, a Shreveport civics teacher, said the flag is simply a neutral memorial to soldiers and should not be taken down merely because some find it offensive. “If you got rid of everything that offended someone you would have to get rid of everything.”