Sentencing Survivors: The Trials of Joan Little and Cyntoia Brown

Cyntoia Brown. Photo: Tennessee Department of Corrections

After spending almost half her life behind bars, Cyntoia Brown leaves prison this month, freed on the clemency she received in January. Brown was convicted in 2006, at age 18, for committing murder and robbery to escape an alleged sex trafficking scheme.

While it marks the beginning of freedom for Brown, this month also marks the anniversary of a pivotal event in the life of Joan Little, whose own escape from sexual violence — and its aftermath — have drawn comparisons to Brown’s.

A justice system that targets people of color makes Joan Little’s and Cyntoia Brown’s cases the exception rather than the rule.

The incidents that fractured their lives were separated in time by decades, but otherwise the details share numerous similarities. Both Brown and Little are women of color. Both lived in the South. And both gained strong public support from activists and celebrities who viewed them as women caught in a criminal justice system fraught with racism and sexism.

In the Hands of the People

The case of Joan (pronounced “Jo Ann”) Little represented a turning point in the way Black victims of sexual violence were treated in the courts. Throughout much of U.S. history, sexually degrading Black women has been part and parcel of maintaining the racial order in many communities — enough so that, as one Black newspaper observed in the 1950s, it was a “commonplace experience for many of our women … to be propositioned openly by white men. You can pick up accounts of these at a dime a dozen in almost any community.”

Sexual harassment and sexual assault of Black women was normalized enough that perpetrators often enjoyed impunity. Two cases, both from the 1940s, underscored the shocking extent of that impunity and brought early civil rights leaders together in response. Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old sharecropper, was gang-raped in Abbeville, Alabama, in 1944. At trial, an all-white, all-male jury let all six defendants walk free. Years later, in 1947, another sharecropper, Rosa Lee Ingram of Ellaville, Georgia, killed John Ethron Stratford, a white neighbor who had threatened her with sexual assault and gun violence. Though she had acted in self-defense, Ingram was sentenced to death for killing Stratford.

Joan Little’s case went to trial after the civil rights and women’s rights movements had put decades of work into transforming attitudes about race, gender, and sexual violence. Her  run-ins with the law began early in her life. As a teen in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she was declared a truant in a North Carolina court and committed to a training school. In the years that followed, she faced a series of arrests for theft, and in 1974, at age 20, she was arrested and convicted for breaking and entering, larceny, and possession of stolen merchandise.

Unable to make bail, Little was detained for two months while she awaited trial. It was on August 27, 1974 — 45 years ago this month — that jailer Clarence Alligood entered her cell in the Beaufort County Jail in Washington, North Carolina. According to Little, the 62-year-old Alligood attempted to rape her while threatening her with an ice pick. In self-defense, Little then seized the ice pick from him and fatally stabbed him. She immediately fled the jail and spent 11 days as a fugitive who was wanted for murder. She was arrested on September 7, 1974, and faced a grand jury in the days thereafter. If convicted, Little faced the possibility of the death penalty in North Carolina’s gas chambers.

As news of the trial broke, white townspeople shared numerous doubts about Little’s account of the events. Common narratives echoed the Jezebel stereotype of the sexually promiscuous Black woman. One car dealer was quoted as saying that among Black women in the town of Washington, having sex “was like saying good morning, or having a Pepsi-Cola.”

Little was aware of these stereotypes and thought her chances of receiving a just verdict were slim. Experts who worked on her defense found evidence to confirm her fears. In telephone surveys of area residents, most respondents held the view that Blacks in general had lower morals and were more violent than whites — and that Little specifically was guilty as charged. Finding an impartial jury would be a challenge.

Poster for event benefiting Joan Little (spelled “Joanne” here) and Inez García, another survivor-defendant. Photo: University of Michigan Library (Special Collections Research Center, Joseph A. Labadie Collection)

Little’s case, though, drew enormous attention from the press, especially with its dramatic story of a killing and daring escape from jail. That, in turn, meant her case drew a rapidly mounting campaign of public support, bringing together activists and celebrities alike. Prominent activists included Angela Davis, Ralph Abernathy, and Rosa Parks, and organizations included the Black Panther Party, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the National Organization for Women. Poet Amiri Baraka, rock band the Deadly Nightshade, and singer Florence Chapman of the Supremes were among the celebrities lending star power to Little’s cause.

Recognizing the groundswell of support on her behalf, Little said during her trial, “My life is not in the hands of the court. My life is in the hands of the people.” The people’s calls for acquittal were answered. A panel of six white and six Black jurors spent only 78 minutes in deliberation before deciding Little was not guilty of deliberately murdering Clarence Alligood. It was a groundbreaking decision that made Joan Little the first woman to be acquitted for using deadly force to prevent sexual assault. In addition, Little’s case helped lay the groundwork for Battered Woman Syndrome as a legal defense in cases involving self-defense against bodily harm.

A Slow Journey to Justice

While Little’s verdict can be celebrated for setting an important precedent, it did not usher in an era of broad and lasting justice for people who are threatened by — or victims of — sexual assault or other gender-based violence. In one striking example, a study of the California state prison system revealed that 93 percent of the women who were incarcerated for killing their partners had experienced abuse from them. Sixty-seven percent of them had killed their partner while trying to protect themselves or their children.

Three decades after Joan Little’s not-guilty verdict, the case of Cyntoia Brown drew attention to the thousands of women who still face imprisonment for defending their own lives.

Brown had had a challenging life since infancy. Her biological mother, Georgina Mitchell, became pregnant with her at 16 and drank during the pregnancy. After Cyntoia’s birth, Georgina began abusing crack cocaine and eventually gave Cyntoia up for adoption.

In her teens, Cyntoia ran away from her adoptive mother, Ellenette Brown. She was soon picked up by a 24-year-old named Garion McGlothen, a man she called “Cut Throat,” and she lived a transient life with him in various hotels. According to Brown, he was emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive — someone who threatened her multiple times with a gun and once choked her to the point of unconsciousness.

Cut Throat, she testified, had told her “that some people were born whores, and that I was one … and the best thing I could do was just learn to be a good whore.” Cut Throat forced her into prostitution, which led to an encounter with Johnny Mitchell Allen.

Allen, a 43-year-old real estate agent, propositioned Brown while she was caught in Cut Throat’s sex trafficking scheme. Allen took her to his house, where he first showed her his gun collection and then led her to his bedroom. Brown, thinking he was acting strangely, panicked when she saw him reach for something under his mattress. Thinking he had stashed a weapon there, she panicked and pulled a .40 caliber handgun from her purse.

On August 7, 2004, Nashville police found Allen nude and dead from a gunshot wound to the head. Brown had shot him and fled after taking his wallet, car, and guns from him.

Brown, then age 16, was arrested and taken into custody the next day. She was subsequently sentenced to 60 years in prison in a 2006 trial — even though she had been both a minor and a victim of sex trafficking at the time she killed Allen.

Like Joan Little, Brown attracted the attention of numerous activists and celebrities. Her case was held up as an example of a juvenile justice system that is overly punitive and disproportionately targets youth of color. LeBron James, Cara Delevingne, Rihanna, Bella Thorne, Snoop Dogg, Alyssa Milano, and Kim Kardashian were among the famous supporters calling for an end to Brown’s incarceration.

During an appeals hearing in 2017, Brown told her lawyer, “Just to see all the people and all the different organizations who believe in me and who want to stand up for me, it’s humbling and mind blowing.”

The appeal was unsuccessful, but years of public pressure finally paid off early this year, when Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, shortly before leaving office, announced he would grant clemency to Cyntoia Brown. Now 31 years old, Brown will leave the Tennessee Prison for Women after a decade and a half behind bars.

Unfortunately, the cases of Joan Little and Cyntoia Brown were the exception rather than the rule. Countless others have not had the attention and public support that helped free Little and Brown.

While applauding news of Brown’s release, Piper Kerman, the author of Orange Is the New Black, remarked, “Women suffer in hierarchical, patriarchal systems, and this is nowhere more obvious than in prisons.” Brown, she said, was one of thousands of girls and women whose crime was escaping rape or other violence. “They need to see freedom, too.”