The case of Joan (pronounced “Jo-Anne”) Little helped bring awareness to sexual buse of women in prison. On this day in 1975, Ms. Little became the first woman acquitted of murder using a self-defense plea after she killed an abusive white prison guard.
Little was born in 1953 in Washington, N.C, a small coastal town. Little had a tormented childhood and often rebelled against her strict religious mother. As one of 10 children Little served as a caretaker for her siblings while her mother worked. After several instances of truancy and running away from home, she eventually fled to Philadelphia and graduated from high school there.
Little returned to North Carolina and immersed herself in life of crime. Along with her brother, Jerome Little, she burglarized homes in Beaufort County, racking up a string of arrests before being convicted of grand larceny in 1974. At age 20, Little was ordered to serve seven to 10 years at the Women’s Prison in Raleigh. However, Little chose to serve her time at the Beaufort County Jail to raise bond and appeal the conviction.
At just 5-foot-3 and 120 pounds, Little was considerably smaller than the male prison guards. The county jail was often lax in its security and it was known that guards often promised freedom to the inmates in exchange for sexual favors.
According to Little’s account, married prison guard Clarence Alligood entered her cell one evening and allegedly tried to assault her. In a scuffle, Alligood, who stood 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, was stabbed 11 times with an ice pick.