The tale of Joan (pronounced “Jo-Ann”) Little (pictured left) is one replete with the hardships of a young African-American woman struggling to survive in a world that has been unkind to her gender. Coupled with the harsh realities of her upbringing, crime became a refuge for Little. Despite this, Little would become the first woman to be acquitted of murder by way of justifying killing in the name of self-defense against sexual assault on this day in 1975.
Little was born in the town of Washington in North Carolina. Her mother, Jessie Williams, was said to be a religious zealot. With her father living in New York, Little, one of 10 children, became a part-time caretaker for her blood and half-siblings with her mother working long hours. As she grew older, Little associated with adults who supported her brazen attitude and rebellious nature. In 1973, she left Washington with a construction worker and settled in Chapel Hill.
Little bucked against her mother’s authority as a teenager, often running away and hiding. Her social worker noted that she was intelligent, but Little continued to resist. After several bouts of truancy, Little left for Philadelphia and graduated from high school there.
Little’s criminal activity began at the end of 1973 to the beginning of 1974. She and her brother, Jerome, burglarized homes in Beaufort County following a series of several prior arrests. Little was found guilty by a jury trial in June 1974 and ordered to serve seven to 10 years in Women’s Prison in Raleigh. Little opted to stay in Beaufort County Jail so she could raise bond and appeal her conviction.
At just 5-foot-3 and roughly 120 pounds, Little was small compared to the all-male jailers at the prison. Guard Clarence Alligood stood 6 feet tall and weighed around 200 pounds. The county jail was loosely guarded and it was reported that the inmates and jailers were friendly with one another.
Writers who have studied the case, however, say that the prison guards would sexually harass and attempt to sleep with female prisoners with the promise of freedom.
In the wee morning hours of August 27, 1974, Alligood, married for over four decades, was discovered half-nude in Little’s cell. The guard was stabbed 11 times by an ice pick and naked from the waist down. Alligood was stabbed in the temple and chest, and semen was found on his left leg as his body clutched the pick. His keys were missing, which Little used to escape. The pick was a favored tool of guards in the prison for doing miscellaneous clean up jobs, so it is assumed Little walked freely in the facility at some point before and after the murder.
With the help of local attorney Jerry Paul, Little negotiated her surrender after being declared a fugitive. Instead of returning to the county facility perhaps out of fear, Little was transferred to the Raleigh Women’s Prison.
The district attorney for Beaufort County sought to indict Little on first-degree murder, which the grand jury complied. In North Carolina at the time, first-degree murder charges also carried the high threat of the death penalty.
If convicted, Little would have died in the state’s gas chamber.
With bail set at $115,000 to $100,000 for the murder charge and $15,000 on her prior grand larceny charges, which landed her in jail, Little was forced to remain in prison for six more months.
What broke the case open on a national level occurred during the five-week trial when Little’s defense team shared details of how the struggle between she and Alligood occurred.
Little claimed that after the guard sexually assaulted her, she was able to wrestle away the ice pick and stabbed him in self-defense. Morris Dees, then legal counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, caught wind of the case, and with the help of Paul, created the “Joan Little Defense Fund.”
Dees would write a solicitation later, which was later reprinted in the New York Times, and reached millions.
With a nation of activists and women’s rights advocates rallying around her, Little was able to raise $350,000 and post bail; she was released pretrial on February 27, 1975.
Paul assembled a team of attorneys and hired social scientists to build their defense. Paul also requested a change of venue, stating that a fair trial would not have happened in Beaufort County. The judge in the case ordered the matter to be handled in the city of Raleigh, a move the defense welcomed.
Naturally, the media’s sway in the case helped and hurt both sides. Paul argued that North Carolina papers unfairly emphasized the brutal nature of the killing and Little’s criminal past with little regard paid to the fact of the evidence of sexual assault and the abuse of power by the guards.
The Times once again helped move information of the case to a national audience, and Paul worked furiously to paint Little as the victim in the hotly contested case.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Ralph Abernathy was quoted by Jet 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.
In 1975, activist Angela Davis wrote a scathing piece for Ms. Magazine titled “Joan Little: The Dialectics Of Rape” ahead of Little’s acquittal:
Joan Little may not only have been the victim of a rape attempt by a White racist jailer; she has truly been raped and wronged many times over by the exploitative and discriminatory institutions of this society. All people who see themselves as members of the existing community of struggle for justice, equality, and progress have a responsibility to fulfill toward Joan Little. Those of us — women and men — who are Black or people of color must understand the connection between racism and sexism that is so strikingly manifested in her case. Those of us who are White and women must grasp the issue of male supremacy in relationship to the racism and class bias which complicate and exacerbate it.
The murder trial began on July 14, 1975, ending on this day after weeks of testimonies and a media circus that attempted to paint Alligood as a devoted family man who would never harm a soul. Dick Gregory, Julian Bond, and others joined protesters in and outside the court during the trial. The defense, with the good fortune of shoddy police work and lack of solid evidence, would win their case. After a trial that lasted a month and one week, the case was deliberated and decided in just 78 minutes that morning.
Little said to the news that she “felt good” about the verdict and that the “prosecution was more interested in sending Black women to the gas chamber than the truth.” She also added the trial was “fair” as well.
Little remained free and was a symbol of justice for groups, such as the Black Panther Party and others. Yet the lure of her past life won over ultimately and she would later be arrested in Brooklyn in 1977. She was extradited to North Carolina until her parole in the summer of 1979. Ten years later, she was arrested once more for driving a car with stolen plates and other minor offenses. Little has remained out of the public eye since then.