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Bidish Sarma

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The Confederate Flag, the Caddo Parish Courthouse & Equal Justice for All

Posted: 05/12/11 11:29 AM ET

In Shreveport, the Third National flag of the Confederacy flies directly in front of the district courthouse. The flag is symbolic of the widespread disenfranchisement of African-American jurors, and the second-class justice afforded African-American defendants throughout the deep South. Worse still, the flag discourages African-American involvement in the justice system and diminishes the actual quality of justice provided.

Recent events have brought the flag's presence from the day-to-day lives of Caddo Parish residents to the national forefront. On May 3rd, Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, Jr. headlined a coalition of local citizens, faith leaders, activists, and attorneys who met on the courthouse lawn to question the parish's ability to provide equal justice for all under this tribute to a bloody and intolerant regime.

Following the press conference, Professor Ogletree met with local citizens in a town-hall meeting at a local church to discuss the detrimental effects that death-penalty prosecutions have on poor communities and communities of color. The town-hall participants, brought together by the Louisiana Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, agreed that the vast resources ultimately allocated to secure death sentences could be better spent on alternative methods of crime-prevention and education.

This week, attorneys representing death-row inmate Felton Dorsey, joined by the ACLU, voiced concerns with how the "blood-stained banner" influenced the jury selection and capital trial of an African-American man accused of killing a white firefighter. The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Louisiana Supreme Court on behalf of 26 Caddo Parish and other Louisiana clergy leaders, 28 law and history professors and scholars, the ACLU, the NAACP Shreveport Chapter, the Equal Justice Initiative, and the Southern Center for Human Rights, among others.

Disclosure: Bidish Sarma is attorney at the Capital Appeals Project. The Capital Appeals Project represents Mr. Dorsey on his appeals.

The brief delves into Caddo Parish's sordid post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow history, which extended Shreveport's legacy as the site of the Confederacy's last stand. That legacy is explicitly and inextricably about white supremacy and the disenfranchisement and marginalization of African-Americans. As Rachel Maddow explained earlier in the week,

"[i]n the Reconstruction era just after the Civil War, Caddo Parish earned the nickname the 'bloody Caddo' for its high proportion of black citizens who were murdered." Moreover, "[i]n 1951, they added to [the Confederate monument], they added a flagpole and the Confederate flag. And there it stands. Still. Outside the Caddo Parish courthouse today, in 2011."

As always, the opponents of the blood-stained banner have riled up the Confederate flag's defenders and apologists. The arguments against taking down the flag from a courthouse in which justice is to be rendered range from unsupported to downright deplorable. The president of the Shreveport chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy insists that the flag is on "the private property of a nonprofit organization." But, a 2002 title search commissioned by a Caddo Parish attorney revealed no records indicating that the parish ever gave up ownership of the parcel of land that fronts the courthouse.

In a political climate where a substantial portion of the population joined the call for President Obama to produce a birth certificate, surely some private entity claiming to own the land at the courthouse should produce a document to prove it. While the privately-owned land claim is currently unsupported at best (if not an elaborate and effective myth), others have said more destructive things. According to a letter to the editor published in the Shreveport Times:

"I'll only agree to remove the flag you are referring to when the NACCP [sic] agrees to disband. You know there are people who have feelings besides them, what about our rights? Besides that, it was their own people that sold them."
This letter on its own demonstrates that race-related concerns in Shreveport are exemplified by the flag, not limited to it. Racial disparities in the criminal justice system drive this point home. For example, based on the homicide statistics from 1988-2008, an African-American defendant accused of killing a white victim is at least 15 times more likely to face a first-degree death-penalty prosecution than if the victim had shared his race. These results may seem less surprising when one considers that Louisiana's death row has the highest percentage of African Americans of any state with more than 10 inmates on its row. Nevertheless, racial disparities in Caddo's incarceration rate extend far beyond death row.

African Americans seeking to fulfill their civic duty as jurors do not fare much better than criminal defendants. In 2007, the Louisiana Supreme Court was compelled to grant Robert Coleman a new trial because Caddo Parish prosecutors discriminated against potential jurors on the basis of their race. The Court explained, "[b]y specifically referencing the race of the defendant and the victim, the prosecutor clearly and unmistakably indicated that the decision to strike [the juror] was motivated by this prospective juror's race." Moreover, in Felton Dorsey's case in 2009, the prosecutors struck five of the seven prospective African-American jurors (71 percent), compared to only six of 27 potential white jurors (22 percent). These numbers are illuminating.

It was in Felton Dorsey's case where one prospective African-American juror eloquently tied these troubling characteristics about the justice system to the powerful symbol flying in front of the courthouse. Juror Carl Staples explained why he did not wish to serve as a juror:
"[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."

Mr. Staples's courageous comments captured something profound about "justice" purportedly handed down in the Caddo courthouse. The question he posed -- how? -- remains unanswered. Can there be equal justice for all in Caddo Parish? No. Not as long as the courts evade constitutional questions about the flag and its legacy, and not as long as they refuse to acknowledge and grapple with all of the other evidence of institutional, recurring bias.