Joan Little Trial: 1975

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Joan Little Trial: 1975

Defendant: Joan Little
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Jerry Paul, Morris Dees, Marvin Miller, Karen Galloway, James Gillespie, and Milton Williamson
Chief Prosecutors: William Griffin, John Wilkinson, and Lester Chalmers
Judge: Hamilton Hobgood
Place: Raleigh, North Carolina
Dates of Trial: July 14-August 15, 1975
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: A mix of sex, race, murder, and unprecedented support for the defendant made this a trial of international notoriety. The trial was also one of the first in which "scientific" jury selection was used by defense lawyers to try to insure a favorable outcome.

At 4:00 a.m. on August 27, 1974, officers at the Beaufort County Jail in Washington, North Carolina discovered the body of guard Clarence Alligood in a cell. Nude from the waist down, he had been stabbed 11 times. His trousers were bunched up in his right hand. The fingers of his left hand enclosed an ice pick. The cell's occupant, Joan Little, age 20, had been serving a seven-year sentence for robbery; now she was gone. One week later she surrendered to authorities. The story she told made headlines. Little, a black woman, claimed that the 62-year-old white jailer had forced her into performing a sexual act, and that she had killed him in self-defense.

Even before her trial began July 14, 1975, Joan Little had achieved global celebrity. More than $60,000 in donations flooded in from around the world, enough to mount a prodigious defense. The leader of that six-person team was lawyer Jerry Paul. He was a believer in scientific jury selection and spent much of that hefty defense fund on psychological profiles to determine which juror was likely to be sympathetic and which wasn't. A revolutionary concept at that time, it only heightened public interest in the case, but as the process dragged on into its second week, Judge Hamilton Hobgood's impatience began to show. Paul protested:

I don't intend to sit or stand here and see an innocent person go to jail. You can threaten me with contempt or anything else, but it does nor worry me.

Advised that his outburst could result in a jail term, Paul attempted to soft-pedal his rhetoric during the remainder of proceedings. To no avail. At trial's end, he was given 14 days for contempt.

Sexual Advance Prompts Killing

When the state commenced its case, prosecutor William Griffin argued that Little had deliberately instigated the incident, seducing Alligood, then killing him when she saw her chance to escape. When jail employee Beverly King testified that nothing in Alligood's demeanor that night indicated that he had sex in mind, deputy defense counsel Morris Dees became belligerent. Over repeated warnings from the bench, Dees pressed King on this issue. During a lunch recess he even approached her. The two were seen in earnest conversation. When court resumed, Judge Hobgood demanded to know the nature of this conversation. Sheepishly, Dees admitted exhorting King to repudiate her testimony, a flagrant impropriety that resulted in his expulsion from the trial.

Why Dees felt the need to adopt such tactics is unfathomable: the defense had a strong case. Three former inmates of Beaufort County Jail testified that Alligood often sexually molested the female prisoners. One, Rosa Robertson, claimed to have attempted suicide rather than yield to Alligood's advances, although it was later established that the suicide bid was halfhearted, to say the least.

Next came Joan Little's testimony.

In the 12 months between crime and trial she had been entirely reshaped by her lawyers. Gone was the promiscuous, street-wise tough girl. In her place was a well-groomed and demure young woman. She told how Alligood had, Come to her cell. "He said that he had been nice to me and that it was time that I be nice to him." Under guidance from Paul, Little described what happened next.

He started to take off his shoes outside the corridor he started in towards the cell and I backed off to the back wall he just started taking off his pants I told him no, I wasn't going to do nothing like that he tried to force me towards him that's when I noticed that he had a ice pick in his hand.

Then, Little claimed, Alligood forced her to her knees and made her commit a sexual act. During this act Alligood let go of the ice pick. A struggle broke out. "I got to the pick first," said Little. She struck Alligood several unthinking, unaimed blows with the pick, then ran from the cell.

A Quick Acquittal

It didn't take long for prosecutor Griffin to isolate the weak spots in Little's testimony. How had the ice pick, an item normally kept in an outer office, suddenly materialized in Alligood's hand? She didn't know. How was she able to fight off Alligood? "He was a big man, wasn't he?"

"Yes," admitted Little.

Griffin pushed harder. Why had she not screamed? Why no attempt to fight back? Why, when Alligood was removing his trousers, had she not attempted to escape his clutches then? Little's answers were inconclusive but not incriminating. Nothing she said was inconsistent with her version of events in the cell.

One of the jurors, when the verdict was in, commented, "I thought about it and I decided that these people [the prosecution] hadn't shown me anything to convict her," a sentiment echoed by fellow jurors. After less than 90 minutes of reflection, they found Little not guilty.

Following acquittal, Little was returned to prison to finish her seven-year robbery sentence. On October 15, 1977, she again escaped, but was recaptured and finished out her term. She resurfaced briefly in 1989 when she spent a night in jail on stolen property charges which were later dropped.

There was something in this case for everyone: civil rights activists, church groups, feminists. All made capital from what was a unique situation.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Harwell, Fred. A True Deliverance. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979. Jet (March 20, 1989): 37.

Reston, James, Jr. The Innocence of Joan Little. New York: Bantam, 1977.

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Joan Little Trial: 1975

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