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Joan Little Trial: 1975

Sexual Advance Prompts Killing, A Quick Acquittal

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.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980