Joan Little (pronounced "Jo Ann") (born 1953) is an African-American woman who was charged with the 1974 murder of Clarence Alligood, a white prison guard at Beaufort County Jail in Washington, North Carolina, who attempted to rape Little before she could escape. Her case 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.[1] Her case also has become classic in legal circles as a pioneering instance of the application of scientific jury selection.[2]

Joan Little
Born1953 (age 70–71)
Known forBeing acquitted of the murder of a white prison guard who she killed in self-defense

Early life edit

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,"[3][page needed] 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."[3][page needed] 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.

Criminality edit

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.[4]

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.[4] 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.[4] Her trial was set for June 3 and she left town in the interim. Her brother, Jerome Little, acted as Joan's partner for certain break ins and another string of criminalized offenses that led her to be imprisoned in 1974.[5]

She returned to Washington in time for the trial, accompanied by Julius Rogers and two minors. The minors ended up in jail, where they were sexually harassed by a guard who offered them freedom if one of them would "give him some."[3][page needed] 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.[4]

Trial for murder edit

Self defense against jailor edit

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.[6] 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.[7]

Clarence Alligood had a record of forcing female inmates to take part in sexual favors as payment for gifts he'd given them. Other inmates had previously stated that he had given them gifts in the form of snacks and magazines and expected to receive sexual favors.[8]

Since Little had fled from prison she was known as a fugitive and the police were therefore authorized to kill her on sight, so Little turned herself in at Raleigh. She was put on trial for murder and was facing the North Carolina gas chamber.[4] She had found refuge in the home of an older black man from her community and had also received offers to seek refuge in other countries.[8]

Charged with first-degree murder edit

Little 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.[4] Little's trial brought attention to her being the first women of color to cite self-defense during sexual assault against an accusation of murder.[6] The racial component drew the attention of civil rights activists, and the gender component drew the attention of feminists.[6] The combination of these three factors, along with sophisticated fundraising tactics, allowed the Joan Little Defense Committee to raise over $350,000.[9] Jerry Paul and Karen Bethea-Shields (Karen Galloway) were her attorneys. The question of whether or not black people were treated equally by the criminal justice systems in the American South drew the attention of the national media.[9]

The trial edit

The trial opened on July 14, 1975.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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,[13] 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.[7] 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.[4]

William Griffin was the prosecutor who had concluded that Little had lured the 62-year-old jailer so she could escape.[14]

When the autopsy came back, it was concluded that Little's explanation of the incident was true. The autopsy concluded that the eleven stab wounds given to Alligood were in self-defense. Only one stab had been a fatal one, while the other ten were clear signs of self-defense against an attacker.[8]

On August 15, 1975, the jury of six whites and six African Americans deliberated for one hour and 25 minutes and rendered a verdict of not guilty.[10] Among them were Jennie Lancaster, Pecola Jones, and 26-year-old jury spokesperson Mark Neilsen.[15]

Jerry Paul had Joan Little walk around in front of the media with the book "To Kill a Mockingbird" in order to encourage comparisons between her and Tom Robinson, the imprisoned black man of the novel.[16]

The Free Joan campaigns were successful enough that Joan's counsel were able to get the first-degree murder charge reduced to second degree. Judge Hobgood noted that the prosecution did not have liable evidence.[4]

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.[17]

Legacy of trial edit

Joan Little was the first woman to be acquitted of murder committed in self-defense against a sexual assault.[9]

African American women were given the right to sexual-assault defense against their Anglo-white male assaulter/rapist. This was all possible with the campaign that stood behind Ms. Little during the full trial.[18]

Joan Little's trial attracted the attention of many political activists, including Angela Davis; Rosa Parks, who formed a local chapter for Little's defense; and Karen Galloway, a former Duke University Law student who worked closely with Joan Little on her case. Galloway spent countless hours with Ms. Little and came to know her better than anyone else during the trial.[8] Others who took part in Little's case included Maulana Karenga (Ron Karenga), Ralph Abernathy, who spoke during a protest outside Beaufort County courthouse,[19] Bernice Johnson Reagon, who contributed to funding support for Ms. Little,[20] and Dr. Larry Little, a Black Panther Party leader (Winston-Salem chapter), who stood by Little's side and was vocal in his concerns about the trial and about subjects that weren't well covered during the trial.[21]

During the Little trial, other women came forward to testify about Alligood's history of sexual assault in prison, including African American women Ida Mae Roberson and Phyllis Ann Moore. Their testimony encouraged Little's jury to lean toward her defense.[19]

Aftermath edit

Little's murder trial focused national attention on the issues of a woman's right to defend herself from rape, the validity of capital punishment in North Carolina, racial and sexual inequality in the criminal justice system, and the rights of prisoners in general.[4] It also inspired women's rights movements abroad, including Joan-søstrene (The Joan sisters) in Denmark.[22]

"Free Joan Little," was a slogan that activists used in order to raise awareness of her situation and try to get her released. It was said that without the funding and activists' support, Joan Little would possibly be serving a death sentence.[4]

Jerry Paul, Joan Little's chief attorney, was sentenced to fourteen days in jail for choice of words and wants against Judge Hamilton H. Hobgood.[23]

The trial became a globally known case, with observers split between those who believed her to be guilty and those who did not. Those standing behind her saw a woman that was a victim of racism, sexism, and was vulnerable because she was the only female prisoner at the Beaufort jail during that time. Those who thought of her as being guilty saw her as luring Alligood into her cell with ideas of sex and killing him in order to escape the prison.[4]

The case was well known during the late 70's, because it had shown signs of what the black movement as well as other movements wanted to stand behind. These organizations came together to support Little because of the connections there were between racism, sexism, rape against women of color, women's rights, and, particularly, the double bind that African American women have to deal with within the prison industrial complex.[19]

Little authored a poem entitled "I Am Somebody", which was incorporated into a mural in San Diego's Chicano Park by the female muralists of Sacramento's Royal Chicano Air Force.

The a cappella musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock included a song titled "Joanne Little" on their 1976 self-titled album.

Little is one of the subjects of Jayne Cortez's poem "Rape",[24] along with Inez García.

Later life edit

In 1989, Little was arrested in New Jersey on charges including driving a stolen car. She telephoned William Kunstler, who had assisted her in the past, for help.[17] She had returned to New York a free woman, but now the 34-year-old woman, accompanied by a male, was pulled over for driving a car with missing front license plate and stolen back license plate, as well as additional charges. She remained the night at the Hudson County jail.[17]

Since the 1989 arrest, Little has disappeared from public view.

See also edit

Notes edit

  1. ^ Pickard et al. 2002, p. 885.
  2. ^ Abramson 2000, p. 160.
  3. ^ a b c Reston 1977.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Greene, Christina (2015-06-01). ""She Ain't No Rosa Parks": The Joan Little Rape–Murder Case and Jim Crow Justice in the Post–Civil Rights South". The Journal of African American History. 100 (3): 428–447. doi:10.5323/jafriamerhist.100.3.0428. ISSN 1548-1867. S2CID 147258667. Archived from the original on 2019-06-01. Retrieved 2019-06-02.
  5. ^ "Little Known Black History Fact: Joan Little". Black America Web. 2014-08-15. Archived from the original on 2019-06-04. Retrieved 2019-06-04.
  6. ^ a b c Davis, Angela (1975-08-25). "Joan Little: The Dialectics of Rape". Ms. Magazine. Archived from the original on 2002-08-03. A Spring 2002 reprint of Davis's 1975 piece.
  7. ^ a b TIME 1975.
  8. ^ a b c d "Bethea-Shields, Karen: In Joan Little's Cell | NCpedia". Archived from the original on 2019-06-03. Retrieved 2019-06-04.
  9. ^ a b c "Joan Little: Survived and Punished". Barnard Center for Research on Women. 2017-06-20. Archived from the original on 2019-06-03. Retrieved 2019-06-03.
  10. ^ a b "N.C. jury acquits Joan Little in murder of jailer", Boston Evening Globe, August 15, 1975, p.1
  11. ^ Abramson 2000, p. 147.
  12. ^ Abramson 2000, p. 161.
  13. ^ McGuire 2010, pp. 202–228.
  14. ^ "Prison Culture » 'Free Joan Little': Reflections on Prisoner Resistance and Movement-Building". Archived from the original on 2019-06-02. Retrieved 2019-06-04.
  15. ^ McNeil, Genna Rae (2008-03-22). "The Body, Sexuality, and Self-Defense in State vs. Joan Little, 1974-1975". The Journal of African American History. 93 (2): 235–261. doi:10.1086/JAAHv93n2p235. ISSN 1548-1867. S2CID 140890511. Archived from the original on 2019-06-03. Retrieved 2019-06-03.
  16. ^ King, Wayne (1975-10-20). "Joan Little's Lawyer Scorns Legal System and Says He 'Bought'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 2019-06-04. Retrieved 2019-06-04.
  17. ^ a b c Saxon 1989.
  18. ^ "A look back at the Joann Little case". Archived from the original on 2019-06-04. Retrieved 2019-06-04.
  19. ^ a b c "Free Joan Little: Anti-rape Activism, Black Power, and the Black Freedom Movement – AAIHS". Archived from the original on 2020-04-15. Retrieved 2019-06-04.
  20. ^ "The shocking 1975 trial that brought to light sexual abuse against women in U.S. prisons". Face2Face Africa. 2018-09-06. Archived from the original on 2019-06-03. Retrieved 2019-06-04.
  21. ^ "The Black Panther Party of the New South: Winston-Salem and Dr. Larry Little – Black Power in American Memory". Archived from the original on 2019-05-28. Retrieved 2019-06-04.
  22. ^ "Historie" (in Danish). Joan-Søstrene. Archived from the original on 10 August 2016. Retrieved 4 November 2016.
  23. ^ King, Wayne (1975-08-16). "Joan Little Acquitted in Jailer's Slaying". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 2018-08-25. Retrieved 2019-06-04.
  24. ^ Cortez, Jayne. "Poem of the Day: Rape". Prison Culture. Retrieved 10 March 2022.

References edit

Further reading edit

McGuire, Danielle L. 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 :Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

External links edit