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Joan Little (pronounced "Jo Ann") (born 1953) is an African-American woman whose trial for the 1974 murder of a white prison guard at Beaufort County Jail in Washington, North Carolina, became a cause célèbre of the civil rights, feminist, and anti-death penalty movements. Little was the first woman in United States history to be acquitted using the defense that she used deadly force to resist sexual assault. Her case also has become classic in legal circles as a pioneering instance of the application of scientific jury selection.
Little was born and raised until age 15 in Washington, a town of under 10,000 in North Carolina's rural Atlantic coastal region. Her mother, Jessie Williams was a "religious fanatic" who frequently consulted "root workers," or hoodoo folk healers. Her father was a security guard in Brooklyn, New York. The eldest of six blood siblings, she was forced to care for them and her four half-siblings as well. She took to running away and hiding and soon fell in with an older crowd who supported her rebellion. Her social worker, Jean Nelson, who once called her an "escape artist," also noted her intelligence, telling her "some day you could do a lot of good." As a teenager, she worked in the tobacco industry and as a waitress. In 1973, she went to work with a sheetrock finisher named Julius Rogers, whom she later accompanied to Greenville and later to Chapel Hill, where she would become entangled with the law.
Little's problems with the law began in 1968, when her mother asked a judge to declare her a truant and to commit her to the Dobbs Farm Training School in Kinston, North Carolina. After a few weeks at Dobbs, Little fled, walking to a nearby service station where she and a friend hitched a ride back to Washington. Her mother realized she had not been duly released and so sought to legitimize her daughter's situation by procuring an official release. She later sent Joan to live with relatives in Philadelphia. Three weeks after graduating from high school there, Joan developed a thyroid problem and returned to North Carolina for an operation.
In December 1973 and January 1974, Little, now 20, incurred a spate of arrests for theft and eventually for breaking and entering, with escalating legal consequences. In the coastal town of Jacksonville, North Carolina at the end of 1973, she was charged with the possession of stolen goods and the possession of a sawed-off shotgun, but was not prosecuted. On January 3, 1974, she was arrested in Washington, North Carolina for shoplifting. That charge, too was dismissed. Six days later, she was again arrested for shoplifting, a charge for which she was given a suspended six-month sentence. Six days after her release, she was again arrested and charged with three separate counts of felony breaking and entering and larceny. Her trial was set for June 3 and she left town in the interim.
She returned to Washington in time for the trial, accompanied by Julius Rogers and two juveniles. The juveniles ended up in jail, where they were sexually harassed by a guard who offered them freedom if one of them would "give him some." Little was convicted on June 4, 1974, and asked to remain in the county jail rather than be transferred to the Correctional Facility for Women in Raleigh, as would have been customary. Remaining in Washington, she said, would allow her to remain close to home, where she could work on raising her bond.
Trial for murder
Slaying of a jailer
Nearly three months later, before dawn on August 27, 1974, a police officer delivering a drunken prisoner to the Beaufort County jail discovered the body of jailer Clarence Alligood, 62, on Joan Little's bunk, naked from the waist down. Alligood had suffered stab wounds to the temple and the heart area from an icepick. Semen was discovered on his leg. Little was missing. She turned herself in to North Carolina authorities more than one week later, and said that she had killed Alligood while defending herself against sexual assault.
Charged with first degree murder
She was charged with first degree murder, which carried an automatic death sentence. The capital status of the case, and the fact that North Carolina was home to over one third of all the death penalty cases in the United States, drew the attention of anti-death penalty and prisoners' rights advocates. The racial component drew the attention of civil rights activists, and the gender component drew the attention of feminists. The combination of these three factors, along with sophisticated fundraising tactics, allowed the Joan Little Defense Committee to raise over $350,000. Jerry Paul and Karen Bethea-Shields (Karen Galloway) were her attorneys. The question of whether or not blacks were treated equally by the criminal justice systems in the American South drew the attention of the national media.
The defense team made crucial use of applied social science, including the new method of scientific jury selection, which had just come into existence in 1972. The defense commissioned surveys with a view to comparing popular attitudes among white people toward black people between Beaufort and Pitt Counties, in the state's northeast, and the north central area of the state. The results showed that unfavorable racial stereotypes were more strongly held in Beaufort County. For example, about two thirds of the respondents in Beaufort and Pitt Counties believed that black women were lewder than white women and that black people were more violent than white people. Armed with this information, Paul successfully petitioned to have the trial moved to the state capital of Raleigh.
At trial, the prosecution contended that Little was a lewd woman who seduced Alligood only to murder him to enable her escape. In two days of testimony, Little testified that Alligood, who at well over 200 pounds was nearly twice her size, had come to her cell three times between 10:00 pm and 3:00 am to solicit sex, finally forcing her at the point of an ice pick to perform oral sex. She testified she was able to seize the ice pick while he was seated on her bunk because he had let his guard down in the moments after his orgasm. She stabbed him repeatedly, and she testified he resisted fiercely and wrestled her, but that given his wounded state, she had been able to get free of him. Attorney Jerry Paul made liberal use of the jury's Southern Christian sympathies, characterizing his client as a religious woman who found solace in the Bible in times of trouble.
The jury of six whites and six African Americans deliberated for one hour and 25 minutes and rendered a verdict of not guilty.
Joan Little was returned to prison to serve the remainder of her sentence for breaking and entering. One month before she would have been eligible for parole, she made an escape. She was caught and then convicted and sentenced for the escape. She was freed in June 1979 and moved to New York City.
Her murder trial focused national attention on the issues of a woman's right to defend herself from rape, the validity of capital punishment, racial and sexual inequality in the criminal justice system, and the rights of prisoners in general. It also inspired women's rights movements abroad, including Joan-søstrene (The Joan sisters) in Denmark.
Later in life
- Abramson, Jeffrey. 2000. We, the jury: the jury system and the ideal of democracy; with a new preface. Harvard Univ. Press.
- McGuire, Danielle, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance--A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Knopf, 2010), Chapter 8.
- New York Times. 26 Feb 1989. Joan Little, Tried for Killing Jailer In 1974, Is Arrested in New Jersey.
- Pickard, Toni, Phil Goldman, Renate M. Mohr, and Rosemary Cairns-Way. 2002. Dimension of criminal law. 3rd edition. Toronto: Emond Montgomery.
- Reston, James Jr. 1977. The Innocence of Joan Little: A Southern Mystery. New York Times Books.
- Time. 25 August 1975. Joan Little's story.
- Joan Little - Survived and Punished, a video created by the Barnard Center for Research on Women and Survived and Punished
- 40th anniversary of Joan Little's pivotal murder acquittal, on CBS News
- Joan Little Acquitted, from AP Archives
- Harwell, Fred. A True Deliverance: The Joan Little Case (1980) Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-394-49989-1 (Edgar Allan Poe Award Winner, 1980, Best Non-Fiction Crime Book of the Year)
- The James Reston collection of Joan Little trial materials at the University of North Carolina.