Famous American Crimes and Trials

Volume IV: 1960–1980
Frankie Y. Bailey and Steven Chermak

The Trial of Joan Little: An Inmate, a Jailer, and a First-degree Murder Charge

James R. Acker

Joan (pronounced and occasionally spelled “JoAnne” or “Joanne”) Little, a twenty-year-old black woman, was incarcerated in the small town of Washington, North Carolina, during the summer of 1974. She was thrust into the national limelight after she fatally stabbed Clarence Alligood, the 62-year-old white jailer who was working the graveyard shift in the Beaufort County Jail on August 26 and 27 of that same year. She was charged with first-degree murder, which was a crime automatically punished by death under North Carolina law. There were no eyewitnesses to the killing, and thus no explanation—other than Little’s—for the condition in which Alligood’s body had been found, locked in the jail cell from which Little had escaped. Alligood had suffered multiple stab wounds from an ice pick, including one that penetrated his heart. His lower body was nude, save only for the socks adorning his feet. A small pool of seminal fluid had collected on his leg. It soon became obvious that this would not be a routine murder prosecution.

Americans, in the time following the Watergate scandal, had exhibited a deep distrust of government and government officials. Many citizens, particularly African Americans, waited impatiently for the day when their civil rights would be recognized, not just as abstract legal promises but also in mainstream activities, including involvement with the U.S. criminal justice system. Southern states were under particular scrutiny on racially charged matters. In the mid-1970s, women’s issues were at the focal point, having gathered momentum in the wake of the decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) and spurred on by aggressive campaigns targeting reform of antiquated and misogynistic rape and sexual assault laws. The death penalty had been dealt a severe blow by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Furman v. Georgia (1972), which had invalidated capital punishment statutes across the United States on procedural grounds. Nevertheless, capital punishment had resurfaced with a vengeance amidst strident public debate in North Carolina and elsewhere.

Thus, the stage was set for the murder trial of Joan Little, a case smoldering with so many urgent social issues that its symbolic significance threatened to obscure the individuals caught up in it.

It was a case whose elements were novelistic, almost surpassing the novel in intrigue, for what novelist can construct a believable set of circumstances that contains so much mystery and at the same time bears so importantly on five crucial questions? In a sexual assault, does a woman … have the right to kill her … attacker? Is the level of decency in North Carolina and the nation above the spectacle of human executions? What recourse does a prisoner in jail have to the brutality of jail authorities? How has the lot of the black citizen changed in the rural South? And finally … how new is the New South? (Reston, 1977, p. x)

So turgid was the case with overarching social implications that, as she approached her trial, Little felt compelled to protest that, “I am nobody’s cause … I am on trial for my life before a judge and jury” (Simms, 1975, p. 21). Nevertheless, it was foreordained that many fundamental assumptions of American social justice would be on trial along with Joan Little.

A Killing at the Beaufort County Jail

Joan Little was born in 1954 in Washington, North Carolina, the county seat of Beaufort County, nestled between the Pamlico and Tar Rivers in the eastern, tobacco-rich part of the state. The small town was often referred to as “Little Washington” to avoid confusion with the nation’s capital, which the locals volunteered with a wink and a grin. One of nine children, Little proved during early adolescence to be more than her mother could handle. Her habitual truancy and streetwise behavior caused her mother to invoke the authority of the juvenile court to have Little committed to training school at age fourteen. In an eerie portent of the future, Little took flight from the training school, sought out relatives in New Jersey and Philadelphia, and did not return to her North Carolina home until she was eighteen years old. She almost immediately became involved in minor scrapes with the law, including several arrests and a conviction for shoplifting. She got into more serious trouble in January 1974 (Harwell, 1979, pp. 21–30).

With her brother Jerome, she was arrested and charged with breaking and entering into three residences in a Beaufort County trailer park and stealing televisions, a rifle, appliances, clothing, and other belongings worth more than $1,300. She was convicted following a jury trial in June 1974 and sentenced to serve seven to ten years in the Women’s Prison in Raleigh. At her own request, she was confined in the Beaufort County Jail immediately following her trial. She hoped to secure release from jail on bond pending appeal of her convictions, and she preferred staying close to home to being transferred to the Women’s Prison.

The Beaufort County Jail had been constructed only three years earlier. It was a modern facility located on the ground floor of the courthouse. Little was locked up in the women’s section of the jail, which was maintained separately from the men’s quarters. The women’s section consisted of only two cells, each roughly seven feet by five feet, including a narrow cot, a sink, and a toilet. All of the jailers were men. Clarence Alligood had been employed at the jail for over a year. A former farmer and truck driver, who stood nearly six feet tall and weighed a sturdy 200 pounds, Alligood had been married for forty-four years and was the father of six children (Harwell, 1979, pp. 39–41). Little was of modest stature, just five feet three inches tall and weighing one hundred and twenty pounds (“Rape or Seduction,” 1975).

Alligood reported to work at the jail for the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift on the evening of August 26, 1974. By this time, Little had been incarcerated for nearly three months following her trial. The facility was not overly encumbered by formal rules and regulations, and the staff and inmates intermingled somewhat casually. While Alligood was making his rounds, Little asked him if she could use the telephone in the jailers’ office. Alligood readily assented. He accompanied her from her cell to the office, where another inmate, a teen-aged boy named Terry Bell, was having a soft drink. Little placed her phone call at about 10:30 p.m. Several people were in and out of the office while she conducted her conversation, but at one point, after Alligood had stepped out to assist a woman swear out an assault warrant, Little and Bell apparently were left alone. Little may even have been completely alone in the office for a brief period; a period of some significance because an ice pick—the very ice pick with which Clarence Alligood was stabbed to death—was routinely kept in a desk drawer in the office. The ice pick had proven useful in removing gum, paper, and other objects that occasionally were jammed into cell door locks (Harwell, 1979, pp. 55–60).

Alligood returned Little to her cell by 11 p.m. At around 2 a.m., a police officer stopped by the jail and dropped off some fast food for an appreciative Alligood. Just before 3 a.m., Alligood visited police dispatcher Beverly King in her office, and asked if all of the sheriff’s deputies (who frequently paid visits to the jail with arrestees while engaged in other business) had gone for the night. She replied that they had, and Alligood left her office and returned to the jail area. Alligood’s body would be discovered a little over an hour later, shortly after 4 a.m., by a police officer who was seeking assistance with processing an intoxicated woman whom he had brought to the women’s section of the jail.

Alligood’s body was found locked in Little’s cell, slumped to the side on a blanket that had been folded on the floor. His body was nude from the waist down, except for the socks on his feet. Blood marked his temple. His glasses lay on the floor. Additional blood was on one of his legs, as was a string of fluid that, on later analysis, proved to be “teeming with spermatoz[o]a” (Reston, 1977, p. 11). His pants were clutched in one of his hands. The other hand loosely cupped the ice pick that had been the source of the eleven stab wounds in his body, including one that had pierced the wall of his heart. Fast-food wrappers and part of a sandwich were found in the women’s cellblock area. Alligood’s shoes were outside of the locked cell. Little’s bra and negligee, as well as a blanket, had been tied to the bars of the cell. Neither Little nor Alligood’s keys were anywhere to be found.

Arrest and Pretrial Proceedings: The Criminal Justice System Response

Confusion reigned in the immediate aftermath of the killing. An all points bulletin (APB) was issued that announced the homicide and Little’s escape from jail. Sheriff Ottis (Red) Davis turned his attention to finding a replacement set of keys, so the inmates could be released from the facility’s jail cells in case of an emergency. A rescue squad and a doctor were summoned, Alligood’s death was confirmed, and his body was removed from the jail cell. A police photographer had first taken pictures of the cell and the body, but the camera’s flash attachment malfunctioned which resulted in only a few poor-quality photographs. A sheriff’s deputy had removed the ice pick from Alligood’s hand and handed it to another officer, who simply slipped it uncovered into his back pocket. State Bureau of Investigation agents who traveled from Raleigh to the Beaufort County Jail were dismayed to learn that, before their arrival, the local authorities had already cleared the jail cell of all belongings and scrubbed its four walls thoroughly, leaving the cell spotless.

Rumors abounded that an order would be sought declaring Joan Little an outlaw, (which under an anachronistic North Carolina law would soon be declared unconstitutional), which would have authorized citizens and law enforcement officials alike to kill her on sight. That drastic measure was not taken and nevertheless would have proven futile because Little managed to elude capture. She hid out for nearly a week following her escape in the ramshackle home of Ernest (Paps) Barnes in the black section of Little Washington, just six blocks from the jail (Harwell, 1979; Reston, 1977). Margie Wright, a local activist, learned of Little’s whereabouts and contacted Golden Frinks, who was actively involved with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She also called Jerry Paul, an attorney who was known for his work in civil rights cases, who had grown up in Washington, North Carolina.

A former football player at East Carolina University and a graduate of the University of North Carolina Law School, Paul had since taken up residence in Chapel Hill. During the dead of night and disguised with a wig, Little was smuggled out of Paps Barnes’s house and delivered to Paul’s waiting car. Paul drove her to his home and allowed her to take refuge there. Three days later, on the Tuesday after Labor Day, Paul negotiated Little’s surrender and delivered her amidst much media fanfare to the North Carolina State Police in Raleigh. It was agreed that she would not be returned to the Beaufort County Jail, but that she would instead be taken to the Women’s Prison in Raleigh to await trial.

The district attorney serving Beaufort County, William Griffin, sought an indictment for first-degree murder, a crime that required proof of a premeditated and deliberate killing. The Beaufort County Grand Jury quickly obliged, although two years later the U.S. Supreme Court would declare North Carolina’s mandatory death penalty for first-degree murder unconstitutional (Woodson v. North Carolina, 1976). However, in 1974, the first-degree murder charge signified that Joan Little would die in the state’s gas chamber if convicted. This threat did not appear to be an idle one. At the time, North Carolina had the country’s largest death row, with more than sixty prisoners awaiting execution (King, 1974).

Little’s bail was set at $115,000 dollars, with $100,000 for the murder charge and an additional $15,000 appeal bond on the breaking and entering and larceny convictions that accounted for her presence in the Beaufort County Jail. This amount was well beyond Little’s means, and she would remain incarcerated for six months following her arrest. However, as news of the first-degree murder charge spread—along with the vague outlines of her defense that she had wrestled the ice pick away from Alligood following a sexual assault and killed him in self-defense—Little’s cause not only commanded the support of legions of social activists, but it attracted significant financial backing as well. Morris Dees, legal counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, an organization that fought race discrimination and championed causes including the rights of prisoners and jail inmates, learned of Little’s plight and, after consulting with Jerry Paul, launched a major fundraising campaign for the Joan Little Defense Fund. Dees’s solicitation letter, which featured a reprint of a December 1, 1974, New York Times article about the case (King, 1974), had reached over 2 million people. More than $350,000 would be raised on Little’s behalf by the end of the trial. Making use of a portion of these donations, Little posted bail and gained pretrial release on February 27, 1975 (Harwell, 1979; Reston, 1977).

The legal wrangling over the case had begun shortly after Little’s arrest. Jerry Paul assembled a team of lawyers that eventually included himself; his associate Karen Galloway, who had just graduated from law school and was the only black and only woman among the attorneys; Morris Dees; Marvin Miller, a civil rights attorney from Washington, DC; and three additional North Carolina lawyers. The defense team comprised more than just lawyers, however. With the money raised for the Joan Little Defense Fund, Paul also brought in several social scientists who helped lay the foundation for a change of venue motion, jury consultants who created sophisticated profiles for identifying favorable jurors and studied body language to help screen out undesirable jurors, and even a psychic who had a hand in jury selection and in preparing Little for trial. An initial priority for the defense was to remove the trial from Beaufort County to a different part of the state.

To bolster the argument for a change of venue, the social scientists completed surveys of residents of Beaufort County, surrounding counties in eastern North Carolina, and elsewhere in the state. Their aim was partly to help make the case that it would be impossible to obtain an impartial jury in Beaufort County because of the massive publicity surrounding the killing and its aftermath. But, it also was to show that Little could not receive a fair trial anywhere in the eastern part of the state because so many people in that region harbored racial prejudices and regressive attitudes about women and sexual assault. Following a lengthy hearing, Judge Henry McKinnon granted the change of venue motion. The judge’s written order relied almost exclusively on the evidence concerning prejudicial publicity. However, instead of moving the trial to a neighboring county in eastern North Carolina, he took the unusual step of relocating it to Raleigh. Positioned in the central, Piedmont region of North Carolina and an urban center with a cosmopolitan population as well as being the state capital, Raleigh was light years removed from Little Washington. The defense considered securing this change of venue as crucial to their chances for an acquittal (McConahay, Mullin, and Frederick, 1977, p. 206).

The Media’s Influence

As evident by the change of venue order, media coverage had already had a direct impact on the case. The defense had shown, among other things, that news reports in eastern North Carolina were significantly more likely than in other parts of the state to emphasize the multiple stab wounds that Alligood had received and to minimize aspects of the killing that could be considered more favorable to the defense; such as that Alligood’s body was found partially nude, that there was evidence of recent sexual activity, and that Little maintained that she had killed in self-defense (Reston, 1977, pp. 193–195). From the very outset, however, press coverage fueled and largely defined the case, blurring the lines between substance and image until they were virtually indistinguishable. Following the trial, Jerry Paul would unabashedly admit that he “‘had to create [Joan Little] totally … You could let people see only so much of her. If they saw too much, the mask would slip away’” (Reston, 1977, p. 113). To this end, for example, he was not above planting a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in Little’s hands for the benefit of news photographers and otherwise deliberately attempting to manipulate press reporting (“Personality Sketches,” 1975a). For his part, District Attorney William Griffin complained, “The media shaped this case. There’s no doubt about it” (Harwell, 1979, p. i).

The case did not begin to capture national attention until several months after the slaying, when the New York Times ran a December 1, 1974, story entitled, “Killing of Carolina Jailer, Charged to Woman, Raises Question of Abuse of Inmates” (King, 1974). Earlier press coverage was primarily local, beginning the day after the killing, when the Washington (NC) Daily News ran a story and an editorial entitled “Brutal Murder,” in which Alligood was proclaimed as “a man who gave his life in the line of duty,” and he was hailed as “a good man” (Reston, 1977, p. 22). The story neglected to mention the compromising circumstances in which Alligood’s body had been found. Those details were not announced publicly for a full week until the release of the report of the physician who had examined Alligood’s body in the jail cell, which noted his state of partial undress and “a string of what appeared to be seminal fluid” on his thigh (Harwell, 1979, pp. 106–107). This revelation cast the case in an explosive new light, although news of it spread slowly until a New York Times story was published (“National Issues,” 1975a), which was promptly exploited in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s mass mailing and fundraising campaign.

The ensuing coverage by the Times decried Little’s case as evidence that “Justice in North Carolina is Once More Old South,” citing its “archaic” outlaw statute, “a string of controversial criminal prosecutions of politically active blacks,” the state’s large death row population, and its “deteriorating, almost paralyzed prison system” (“Old South,” 1975a). A New York Times Magazine article dubbed Little’s impending first-degree murder trial as “a cause celebre combining the issues of civil rights, women’s rights and prisoners’ rights” (Reston, 1975, p. 38). Newsweek noted, “what might have been a little-noticed, small-town murder trial [has turned] into a national crusade among women’s and civil-rights organizations” (Footlick and Smith, 1975). An article in The Progressive argued that “interracial rape has been the quintessential political act for more than [300] years” in the South, and that Joan Little’s jury would “be asked to think the unthinkable: first, that the rape of a black woman by a white man is indeed a crime; and second, that a black woman is justified in killing a white man for exercising what would once have been considered his prerogative” (Pinsky, 1975b, p. 9). Radical activist Angela Davis intoned in a Ms. magazine article that Joan Little was “one of the most recent victims in” the “racist and sexist tradition” of the United States, where she was “black and a woman, trapped in a society pervaded with myths of white superiority and male supremacy” (Davis, 1975, p. 74).

Meanwhile, several publications with traditionally black readership editorialized about Little’s plight. Jet quoted the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr.’s successor as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as saying, “I ask North Carolina, if there was a white woman who had stabbed a Black man who was attempting to rape her, would that white woman be on trial today? That white woman would be given a medal of honor. Well, hell, we think as much of our women as white men think of their women” (“Abernathy Supports Little,” 1975a). Two weeks later, pictured smiling and comfortingly scratching a dog behind its ear, Little appeared on the cover of Jet, under the grisly heading, “Joan Little Fights to Avoid Death Sentence” (“Little Fights Sentence,” 1975b).

Julian Bond, a member of the Georgia House of Representatives and the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, wrote in the Black Scholar that Joan Little’s “story is one of the most shocking and outrageous examples of injustice against women on record” (Bond, 1975, p. 31). Another article in the Black Scholar inveighed that “it is important that we understand and argue that Sis. Joanne Little is not on trial, but rather the [United States] and its system of justice which is rooted in and ruled by class and race … [w]e must recognize and respect the social reality that Sis. Joanne Little is a symbol of black womanhood in resistance everywhere against rape and against all other dehumanized and dehumanizing acts and assumptions negative to their freedom and human fullness” (Karenga, 1975, p. 41). Freedomways proclaimed that it “adds its voice to the many who are outraged by the unjust prosecution of [twenty]-year old Joanne Little who has committed the threefold ‘crime’ of being [b]lack, a woman, and defending herself against rape by a racist jailer” (1975, p. 87). The editor of Essence demanded to know, “What is the worth of a Black woman’s virtue in 1975?” The lament continued: “Not only is Jo Anne [sic] Little on trial, we all are. For she represents [b]lack [w]omanhood and our collective chance to affix forever in the consciousness of America that our virtue has been redeemed after centuries of abuse. If the price must be blood, so be it, for we are precious, our sex a gift to be given, but never again taken with but token resistance” (Gillespie, 1975, p. 37).

Joan Little’s defense team capitalized on this wave of pretrial publicity by holding press conferences and making television appearances and seizing every opportunity to associate their client with broader issues of racial and sexual exploitation, dehumanizing conditions of incarceration, abuses of the death penalty, and other themes of social injustice. Prosecutor Griffin was reduced to wondering aloud whether, under the circumstances, “the state could get a fair trial” (Reston, 1977, p. 123). John Wilkinson, hired by the Alligood family as a private prosecutor to assist Griffin in presenting the case against Little, complained that, “There was profound disgust in Beaufort County for its portrayal in the national press as a bunch of intolerant, ignorant slobs like the characters of Caldwell’s Tobacco Road” (Reston, 1977, pp. 166–167). The glare of national and even international publicity would only intensify as the case proceeded to trial.

The Murder Trial of Joan Little

The trial commenced in Raleigh on July 14, 1975. Hundreds of Little’s supporters marched through the downtown area, chanting “Free Joan Little,” and “One, two, three. Joan must be set free. Four, five, six. Power to the ice pick. Seven, eight, nine. Should have done it a thousand times” (Carroll, 1975a, 1A). More than 400 media representatives vied for fewer than forty seats made available for the press in the Wake County Courthouse (Sitton, 1975, p. 4). Judge Hamilton Hobgood, a respected and experienced judge known for his even temperament, was handpicked by the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court to preside over the trial (News and Observer, 1975a, p. 8I).

The first two weeks of the trial were consumed by jury selection. Because it was a capital case, prospective jurors were screened carefully by both sides about their views on the death penalty. Although prosecuting attorneys relied on traditional questions to inform their exercise of peremptory challenges, the defense employed a variety of jury-selection techniques that were anchored on a mathematical model portraying ideal jurors that had been constructed by the social scientists on the defense team. Trouble erupted on the second day of the trial when Judge Hobgood grew impatient with Jerry Paul’s reliance on this model while questioning a prospective juror about her magazine reading habits. Hobgood advised Paul, “I am just busting up your system right now,” and then cleared the courtroom of potential jurors. Following extensive pleading to be allowed to continue, Paul exploded, ultimately resulting in his being cited for contempt of court and a two-week jail sentence served at the trial’s conclusion.

MR. PAUL: The only reason I can see that your Honor is now cutting us off is because we are gaining an advantage and your Honor is favoring the State and your Honor is proceeding in such a manner to insure [sic] Joan Little’s conviction.

COURT: All right, you got that in the record.

MR. PAUL: And at this point we ask your Honor to recuse yourself because I don’t think you are capable of giving Joan Little a fair trial and I don’t intend to sit or stand here and see an innocent person go to jail for any reason and you can threaten me with contempt or anything else, but it does not worry me.

COURT: All right, you got that in the record.

MR. PAUL: And to sit there and say like the queen of hearts off with the heads because the law is the law is to take us back a hundred years.

COURT: All right.

MR. PAUL: It is apparent I’m quite disgusted with the whole matter, whole matter of ever bringing Joan Little to trial anyway. There has been one roadblock after another and one attempt after another to railroad Joan Little and I am tired of it. Now we intend to ask these questions and you can sustain the objections if you want to but the appellate court cannot make a ruling on whether or not they were proper questions unless the questions are asked.

COURT: All right, you have said that twice. I haven’t said you couldn’t ask the questions. (Paul v. Pleasants, 1977, pp. 580–581)

Paul continued asking his voir dire questions. Several days later, when the jury was finally in place, the twelve chosen jurors were a remarkable lot. Five members were under age thirty. Five were black. Among the eight women were two who worked in a vegetarian restaurant. Only two white males were seated, one (the eventual foreman of the jury) worked in a stereo shop, and the other, a lawyer who had been a law school classmate of defense team member Karen Galloway (Nichols, 1975b; Reston, 1977). One juror, “a white, middle-aged farmer’s wife,” was excused at mid-trial when her mother-in-law suffered a heart attack (Nichols, 1975c, p. 1). She was replaced by an alternate, a young black man. The jury that would decide Little’s fate comprised six whites and six blacks.

The state began presenting evidence on July 28, 1975. Various celebrities, including Julian Bond, Angela Davis, and comedian and social commentator Dick Gregory, made appearances throughout the trial. However, the number of protestors rapidly dwindled, and major demonstrations failed to materialize. The trial nevertheless did not fail to produce fireworks. Judge Hobgood was kept busy applying sanctions to other defense lawyers in addition to Paul. He ordered Morris Dees removed from the case after Dees approached a prosecution witness during a court recess and exhorted her to reconsider the testimony she had given (King, 1975b; Nichols, 1975d). Radical defense attorney William Kunstler later was denied permission to enter the case as a replacement for Dees, whereupon he sarcastically commented, “I’m glad to see the quality of justice in North Carolina has not improved.” Hobgood ordered Kunstler to be seated “or you’ll be on the fifth floor,” which was the location of the jail. Kunstler brusquely replied, “Take me up there. What you’re doing down here is outrageous.” Hobgood proceeded to make good on his threat, holding Kunstler in contempt and jailing him for two hours (Carroll, 1975b, p. 5B).

In the absence of eyewitnesses to the killing, the prosecution’s case was circumstantial. The state’s theory was that Little had surreptitiously removed the ice pick from the desk drawer in the jailers’ office while placing her phone call on the night of August 26, subsequently lured Alligood into her cell on the promise of providing him with sexual favors, and then stabbed and killed him so she could escape from the jail. Prosecutors attempted to portray Little as a cool and calculating killer who was anxious to escape the jail so she could be reunited with her lover. The defense, however, capitalized on the shoddy police investigation following the killing, and through cross-examination of the involved officers painted “a picture of confusion and disorganization, as well as lost, overlooked and destroyed evidence and failure to take notes or photographs or to search thoroughly for fingerprints” (King, 1975c, p. 6).

Most observers were not surprised when, at the conclusion of the state’s case, Judge Hobgood ruled that insufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation had been offered to allow the first-degree murder charge to be presented to the jury. District Attorney Griffin suffered Hobgood’s rebuke when he complained, “Without all the publicity and public clamor this case would go to the jury on a first-degree-murder charge” (Nichols, 1975e, p. 1). Although the ruling meant that the threat of capital punishment had been eliminated, the jury would still be allowed to consider the lesser-included charge of second-degree murder, which was punishable by up to life imprisonment. The defense thus renewed its quest to persuade the jury that Little had killed in self-defense after Alligood had forced her to perform oral sex at the point of the ice pick.

To begin its case, the defense offered the testimony of three black women who reported that Alligood had fondled them or made sexually suggestive remarks while they had been inmates in the Beaufort County Jail (Nichols, 1975f). A forensics expert from New York had jurors “openly laughing” at the sheriff department’s inept crime scene investigation as he explained “that fingerprints might have been lifted from an ice pick that had been stuffed in a deputy’s pocket; that photos were ‘inferior’; and that evidence may have been contaminated by being thrown together in a pillow case” (Nichols, 1975g, p. 19). Still, everyone sensed that these witnesses were little more than preliminary to the testimony that would follow. Joan Little was called to the witness stand to be examined by Jerry Paul on August 11 as the fifth week of the trial began.

In response to questioning, Little testified that Alligood had come to her jail cell several times during the early morning hours of August 27, 1974. She recounted that she was wearing her nightgown. Alligood told her that she “looked real nice” and that he “wanted to have sex” with her (Reston, 1977, p. 294). Alligood was called away, but he returned sometime later with “a silly-looking grin on his face” (Reston, 1977, p. 295). He took off his shoes in the outside corridor and then let himself into the cell. He advanced on her and removed her gown. As he took off his pants, she had noticed that he was holding an ice pick in his hand. He then forced her head to his penis. After she performed oral sex on him, Alligood loosened his grip on the ice pick, Little wrestled it away from him, and in the ensuing struggle she stabbed him numerous times. As Alligood slumped over the bunk, bleeding, Little hurriedly got dressed and ran out of the cell, slamming the door behind her. She grabbed the keys from the cell door and escaped into the night through a basement exit (Reston, 1977, pp. 296–306). Little broke down at one point during her testimony and a recess was called to allow her to regain her composure. Two of the black women on the jury wept openly (Nichols, 1975h).

William Griffin then began his cross-examination, a “wheedling, battering” interrogation that spread over two separate days (King, 1975d, p. 68). Griffin attempted to establish that Little had become desperate during her incarceration in the Beaufort County Jail to reestablish contact with her lover, Julius Rodgers, who she feared had abandoned her. He tried to paint her as having loose morals and as having traded sex for money or favors on prior occasions. He suggested that she had invited Alligood into her cell after removing the ice pick from the desk in the jailers’ office earlier in the evening. The heart of his cross-examination, however, centered on the specifics of her story regarding the killing. He hammered away at her admitted lack of resistance to Alligood, a tactic that may have backfired as it culminated in the following dramatic exchange:

GRIFFIN: He had not threatened you, had he, had he said anything except make a proposition to you?
LITTLE: He said some things later.
GRIFFIN: He had not threatened you; he had not said he was gonna hurt you; all he said to you in effect was that he wanted to have sex with you, is that right?
LITTLE: Yes sir.
GRIFFIN: And you didn’t holler, you didn’t scream, you didn’t fight him off, is that right?
LITTLE: No I did not, but if you had been a woman you wouldn’t have known what to do either, you probably wouldn’t have screamed either, because you wouldn’t have known what he would have done to you. (Reston, 1977, p. 310)

Closing arguments to the jury began on August 13, after additional testimony was elicited from a few minor defense witnesses and a rebuttal witness for the prosecution. During seven hours of prosecution and defense arguments, Little was “alternately characterized … as a heroine guided by Divine Providence and a calculating killer who lured Clarence Alligood into her cell and slew him ‘at the moment of ecstasy’” (King, 1975e, p. 10). “It was court as theater, a day of strutting, Southern lawyering that left at least one juror in tears” (Nichols, 1975i, p. 1). Judge Hobgood delivered a lengthy charge to the jury, detailing the elements of second-degree murder as well as instructions about when deadly force is justifiable as self-defense. The jury began deliberating shortly after 10:30 a.m. on August 15. After a trial that had lasted five weeks, they needed only seventy-eight minutes to return to the courtroom with a verdict. The jury foreman stood and stated firmly, “Not guilty.”

The Trial’s Aftermath: The Involved Parties and Enduring Lessons

Joan Little remained free following her acquittal until December 1975, when the appeal of her breaking and entering and larceny convictions was finally rejected (State v. Little, 1975) and she was required to begin serving her seven-to-ten-year prison sentence. In the interim, she appeared at a Black Panther Party rally in Oakland, California, where she was hailed as “the symbol of black womanhood” (“Black Panthers,” 1975a). She was scheduled to appear on national television on the Today show, but she had overslept, unexpectedly leaving host Barbara Walters without her advertised featured guest (Reston, 1977, p. 327). She served nearly eighteen months of her prison sentence before being approved for a work release program in May 1977 (“Work Release,” 1977). However, she absconded in October of that same year and was arrested in December in Brooklyn, New York, following a high-speed car chase (“Auto Chase,” 1977). After fighting extradition, she was returned to North Carolina and incarcerated again before her parole in July 1979 (Lescaze, 1979). Ten years later, she was arrested in New Jersey while driving a car with stolen license plates and charged with additional minor offenses (Saxon, 1989). She has remained out of the public eye since 1989.

Little’s lead defense counsel, Jerry Paul, began a hiatus from his law practice following Little’s acquittal and took to the lecture circuit to deliver speeches. He was roundly criticized for remarks he made to a New York Times reporter two months after the conclusion of Little’s trial. During that interview, Paul said “he still believes in Miss Little’s innocence. But he says it is almost irrelevant that the whole trial process has nothing to do with justice. He uses the words ‘illusion’ and ‘charade.’ He says that he simply ‘bought’ Miss Little’s acquittal, and it cost $325,000” (King, 1975a, p. 23). Paul further suggested that the prosecution had been inept and had overlooked potentially damning evidence including a newspaper clipping that Little had used as a bookmarker in the Bible she kept in her jail cell. “The clipping … depicts, in a drawing and text, how a woman named Jael lured the leader of an army opposing the Israelites to her tent, ‘gave him comfort, and let him rest. Then, as he slept,’ the text goes on, ‘she took a huge nail and drove it through his temples,’ killing him” (King, 1975a, p. 23). The analogy to Alligood’s slaying is unmistakable, yet prosecutors, Paul pointed out, failed to take advantage of the evidence, although it had been in their custody. Paul’s remarks were later branded as “cynical” and “arrogant” (“Judicial Nihilism,” 1975b), and some questioned whether they may have jeopardized the pending appeal of Little’s breaking and entering and larceny convictions (“Little Charade,” 1975). Paul later resumed his law practice, although he was admonished for subsequent ethics violations (Chandler, 2000; State v. Joyner, 1978), and ultimately was disbarred in 1987 (In the Matter of Paul, 1987).

For others involved in the trial, life slowly returned to normal, or at least as normal as circumstances allowed. Clarence Alligood’s widow and son expressed disappointment in the verdict and believed that the intense publicity had produced an unfair trial (“Alligoods Dissatisfaction,” 1975b). Lead prosecutor William Griffin similarly “believed news accounts of the trial have been biased in favor of the defendant” (“New Bias,” 1975), and he said that he did what he thought was right. “This case had to be tried to show that publicity should not prevent a case from coming to trial” (Nichols, 1975j, p. 5B). Judge Hobgood complimented the attorneys involved in the trial for their work, but before the verdict he had opined that the evidence presented was “not as strong” as in most murder trials over which he had presided (Nichols, 1975j, p. 5B). Defense attorney Karen Galloway, whose closing argument to the jury may have been the strongest of all delivered at the trial, returned to practicing law and later became the first black woman judge in Durham County, North Carolina (Reston, 1977, p. 320).

Although Joan Little’s case had an undeniable “mythic quality” (National Review, 1975, p. 924) and was hailed by some as the preeminent civil rights trial of the 1970s (Roche, 1975), it receded to obscurity almost as rapidly as it had captivated the nation during the summer of 1975. The case had no discernible impact on general jail conditions or on the specific issues confronting women inmates. The case failed to make a difference in public attitudes about capital punishment and appeared to have had no lingering significance in racial politics. Its one arguable contribution may have been to solidify a woman’s right to use deadly force to defend against a sexual assault. Even that message is blurred, however, because Alligood’s stabbing death was not sought to be justified in the name of preventing a sexual violation but rather as an act of self-defense after the sexual act had been consummated. One commentator concluded resignedly, “The Joan Little case would have a legacy not of benefits and accomplishments but of bitter memories, disappointments, and broken spirits” (Harwell, 1979, p. 283). Today, when few people recognize Joan Little’s name or recall the facts of her case, that assessment is an unfortunately fitting epitaph to a tragedy that once reverberated in America’s conscience.


Abernathy leads 2,000 in support of Joanne Little. Jet, 48(5), pp. 48–49.
Alligoods express dissatisfaction. (1975b, August 16). The News and Observer (Raleigh), p. 5B.
Bond, J. (1975, March). Self-defense against rape: The Joanne Little case. The Black Scholar, 6, 29–31.
Carroll, G. (1975a, July 15). 500 stage courthouse rally. The News and Observer (Raleigh), pp. 1A, 5B.
Carroll, G. (1975b, August 5). Kunstler is jailed for 2 hours. The News and Observer (Raleigh), p. 5B.
A case of rape or seduction? (1975a, July 28). Time, 106(4), p. 19.
Chandler, L. (2000, September 12). Incompetence among defense lawyers one problem with death penalty. Charlotte Observer, p. 1B.
Davis, A. (1975, June). JoAnne Little: The dialectics of rape. Ms. 3(12), 74–77, 106–108.
The editors.(1975). Freedomways, 15, 87–88.
Footlick, J. K., and Smith, V. E. (1975, February 24). Joan Little’s defense. Newsweek, 85(8), 86.
Furman v. Georgia (1972). 408 U.S. 238.
Gillespie, M. A. (1975, April). Getting down. Essence, 5, (12), 37.
Harwell, F. R., Jr. (1979). A true deliverance. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
In the Matter of Paul (1987). 353 S.E.2d 254 (N.C. App.), cert. denied, 356 S.E.2d 779 (N.C.), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 1004 (1988).
Joan Little fights to avoid death sentence. (1975, May 8). Jet, 48(7).
Joan Little held after auto chase with N.Y. police. (1977, December 8). Washington Post, p. A9.
Joan Little on work release. (1977, May 3). New York Times, p. 36.
Joanne Little saga. (1975, August 29). National Review, 27(33), 924.
Judicial nihilism. (1975b, October 25). New York Times, p. 28.
Karenga, M. R. (1975, July–August). In defense of Sis. Joanne: For ourselves and history. The Black Scholar, 6, 37–42.
King, W. (1974, December 1). Killing of Carolina jailer, charged to woman, raises question of abuse of inmates. New York Times, p. 41.
King, W. (1975a, October 20). Joan Little’s lawyer scorns legal system and says he “bought” her acquittal. New York Times, p. 23.
King, W. (1975b, July 30). Joan Little loses defense lawyer. New York Times, p. 40.
King, W. (1975c, August 2). Lost evidence in slaying scene is conceded at Joan Little trial. New York Times, p. 6.
King, W. (1975d, August 13). Defense closes for Joan Little. New York Times, p. 68.
King, W. (1975e, August 15). Prosecutor and defense present final arguments in Joan Little trial; case likely to go to jury today. New York Times, p. 10.
Lescaze, L. (1979, July 10). Joan Little, free in N.Y.: “It feels good to be out.” Washington Post, p. A10.
Little charade? (1975b, November 3). Time, 106(3), 62.
McConahay, J. B., Mullin, C. J., and Frederick, J. (1977). The uses of social science in trials with political and racial overtones: The trial of Joan Little. Law and Contemporary Problems, 41, (1), 205–229.
Miss Little appears on the coast and thanks the Black Panthers. (1975a, August 28). New York Times, p. 14.
News bias charged in Little trial. (1975c, August 15). The News and Observer (Raleigh), p. 5B.
Nichols, R. (1975a, July 13). National issues engulf unlikely N.C. celebrity. The News and Observer (Raleigh), pp. 1I, 5I.
Nichols, R. (1975b, July 24). Joan Little trial jury seated. The News and Observer (Raleigh), pp. 1, 9.
Nichols, R. (1975c, August 5). Little’s calls pursued. The News and Observer (Raleigh), pp. 1, 5B.
Nichols, R. (1975d, July 30). Judge bans lawyer in Joan Little case. The News and Observer (Raleigh), pp. 1, 11.
Nichols, R. (1975e, August 7). Charge is reduced in Joan Little trial. The News and Observer (Raleigh), pp. 1, 18.
Nichols, R. (1975f, August 8). Ex-inmates testify in Little case. The News and Observer (Raleigh), pp. 1, 4.
Nichols, R. (1975g, August 9). Jury examines bloodstains. The News and Observer (Raleigh), p. 19.
Nichols, R. (1975h, August 12). Joan Little says stabbing followed forced sex act. The News and Observer (Raleigh), pp. 1, 10.
Nichols, R. (1975i, August 15). Lawyers end arguments; case goes to jury today. The News and Observer (Raleigh), pp. 1, 5B.
Nichols, R. (1975j, August 16). Verdict comes quickly. The News and Observer (Raleigh), pp. 1, 5B.
Paul v. Pleasants, 551 F.2d 575 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, 434 U.S. 908 (1977).
Personalities sketch of Joan Little trial. (1975a, July 13). The News and Observer (Raleigh), p. 8I.
Pinsky, M. (1975a, March 9). Justice in North Carolina is once more Old South. New York Times, p. 6.
Pinsky, M. (1975b, April). In the heat of the night. The Progressive, 39(4), 9.
Reston J., Jr. (1975, April 6). The Joan Little case. New York Times Magazine, pp. 38–46.
Reston J., Jr. (1977). The innocence of Joan Little: A Southern mystery. New York: Times Books.
Roche, C. S. (1975, August 11). Judge Hobgood living up to his reputation. The News and Observer (Raleigh), p. 6.
Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
Saxon, W. (1989, February 26). Joan Little, tried for killing jailer in 1974, is arrested in New Jersey. New York Times, p. 34.
Simms, G. (1975, May 8). Joan Little fights to avoid death sentence. Jet, 48(7), 20–24.
Sitton, C. (1975, July 6). Joan Little murder case: The making of state’s cause celebre. The News and Observer (Raleigh), p. 4.
State v. Joyner, 239 S.E.2d 883 (N.C. App. 1978).
State v. Little, 219 S.E.2d 494 (N.C. App. 1975), cert. denied, 220 S.E.2d 621 (N.C.).
Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976).

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Famous American Crimes and Trials -- : Volume IV: 1960–1980


"The Trial of Joan Little: An Inmate, a Jailer, and a First-degree Murder Charge." Famous American Crimes and Trials : Volume IV: 1960–1980. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. 5 Oct 2015. <http://testaae.greenwood.com/doc.aspx?fileID=C8337&chapterID=C8337-1097&path=books/greenwood>

Chicago Manual of Style

"The Trial of Joan Little: An Inmate, a Jailer, and a First-degree Murder Charge." In Famous American Crimes and Trials : Volume IV: 1960–1980, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. http://testaae.greenwood.com/doc.aspx?fileID=C8337&chapterID=C8337-1097&path=books/greenwood. (accessed October 5, 2015).