Joan Little was a young 19-year-old woman who had stabbed her jailer to death with an ice pick in Washington, North Carolina. She claimed the jailer had been sexually assaulting her while she was in jail.
What most people thought was merely a simple murder trial became one of the most controversial civil rights cases in the United States. Did a black woman in the American South finally have the right to defend herself against a sexual assault by a white man?
Joan Little was a young woman living in Washington, North Carolina. She was a small woman in stature and known to be quite attractive. She grew up poor and knew the streets very well. No one wanted to deal with her; she had gained a reputation for being manipulative and tough. She served various jail sentences for breaking and entering and larceny.
The jailer who Little had contact with was 62-year-old Clarence Alligood, who had a reputation of asking sexual favors from the female inmates after bringing them treats. He would give them these little treats and then at some point ask them to pay up with some sexual favor.
On the night in question, Joan was the only female inmate in the women’s section. Alligood was the only jailer on duty. He went into the women’s section with an ice pick. He went into the cell where Joan was and told her that it was time for her to pay up. Alligood sat on the cot and made her perform non-consensual acts on him. At some point, he relaxed his hand, the ice pick fell out, she grabbed it, they struggled, and she was able to stab him multiple times. He fell, after which she allegedly went to the next cell, grabbed her clothes, and was able to escape from the jail.
Little knew that she didn’t stand a chance of reporting what had happened, so she ran. She hid with an old black man in the community. His home was searched twice, but Little was not found.
A friend of Little’s contacted Jerry Paul and a professor in Chapel Hill to go to Washington, North Carolina, to get Little. She was offered the opportunity to flee the country, but she decided she did not want to leave. She wanted to have an opportunity to tell her side of the story, so she turned herself into the FBI.
Little was facing the death penalty. Dr. Page Hudson, the state medical examiner, called local attorney Jerry Paul when he performed the autopsy. Based on the autopsy report, he recognized that Little’s story was consistent with what he observed as a medical professional: from the proof of sexual misconduct, which authorities reportedly did not mention much when the incident was first announced to the public, to the one fatal stab wound. The rest of Alligood’s injuries were defense wounds, and the way they were located showed that he was coming at her. Other female inmates also testified that they had been victims of similar exchanges of sexual favors for snacks and magazines.
In the end, Little had a fantastic attorney who helped the jurors put themselves in Little’s place. The verdict, in the end, was not guilty.