It started out slow and easy, a lazy July evening spent fishing and swimming in Maryland’s Patuxent River. Hours later, the lives of three young black men had been forever altered after encountering a racial and sexual tinderbox on a lovers’ lane in Montgomery County.
The year was 1961. It was nearing midnight when John Giles, James Giles, and Joseph Johnson left the river and approached a young white couple in a parked car on the the local lovers’ lane, hoping to bum a cigarette. Joseph Johnson made the first inquiry, but he was met with a slew of racial epithets from the young white man, Stewart Foster. Joseph was shocked—and then livid—and soon the exchange between the two escalated into violence, culminating with Johnson smashing the cars’ windows with rocks and beating Stewart.
At the time, Montgomery County was just starting to feel the waves of the Civil Rights Movement—1961 was, in fact, the year that it all began in earnest, starting with the desegregation of a local amusement park. A “Commission on Interracial Problems” was created by the County Council, yet despite all of the proposed changes and promises of more equality and less discrimination, the Commission was flooded with complaints of intolerance and racism in public spaces.
The Giles brothers were tried first, before an all-white jury. They were both found guilty of rape, with the prosecution contending that they had dragged Joyce from her car into the woods. Both were sentenced to death by means of lethal gas. Joseph Johnson was tried next, a county over, and received the same sentence.
In keeping with the racist undercurrents of justice at the time, the mounting evidence against Joyce Roberts’ credibility was never mentioned in court. In fact, it was never even disclosed to the defense. It was never mentioned that she had been put on probation weeks prior for being “out of parental control,” nor was it was mentioned that weeks after the boys’ arrests she had “sexual relations with two men at a party and that night took an overdose of pills resulting in hospitalization in a psychiatric ward as an attempted suicide.” The allegations in the case—a young white woman claiming to have been raped by two black men—constituted more than enough evidence for a conviction in 20th century America.
The three defendants were, of course, acutely aware of the racial undercurrent governing their case. In the words of John Giles, written in a letter while he was incarcerated: “There is nothing equal about a Negro dying for rape while a white man lives after committing the same crime. The death penalty seems to be made for the poor, uneducated, and most of all Negroes.”
The Giles brothers’ mother was employed as a maid in the home of a Mrs. Howard F. Ross, a Democratic Party Precinct Chairwoman in Montgomery County. Immediately following the boys’ death sentences, Mrs. Ross, not convinced of their innocence but certain that the penalty imposed was far too harsh, began to round up a group of sympathetic individuals who wished to see the death sentence commuted. They formed the Giles-Johnson Defense Committee. It never occurred to any of the Committee members that the boys might be innocent.
This is where my great-uncle, Dr. Harold Knapp, comes in to the story. Dr. Knapp, affectionately known as ‘Buddy’ to his near and dear, was an MIT educated nuclear-weapons scientist, working for the Department of Defense in Washington. He stumbled upon the Giles-Johnson case (and the campaign of their Defense Committee) in a local newspaper column, and, moved by what he perceived to be a miscarriage of justice, he sent a letter to the editor of the column (who was convinced of the boys’ guilt and staunchly supportive of their death sentences.) Knapp had no vested “interest” in the case; his involvement was simply born out of his firmly held moral beliefs, which bucked the typical prejudice of many of his contemporaries.
Knapp’s letter to the editor was published, and somehow made its way into the hands of the Giles brothers in prison. In an attempt to express their gratitude, they sent Knapp a Christmas card—and so began a long correspondence and unlikely friendship between the brothers and Knapp. Knapp was still unconvinced of their never-ending claims of innocence, but he began to work hard towards the commutation of their death sentences nonetheless. At Knapp’s urging, both of the brothers took (and excelled in) classes while in prison, read literature that he sent them (including To Kill a Mockingbird, which eerily mirrored their own case), and filed appeal after fruitless appeal.
Knapp interviewed many character witnesses, all of whom corroborated the same story about Joyce’s sexual proclivities and mental instability, supporting the defense’s claim that she had invited the young mens’ sexual advances and then lied about it to the police because she was already on probation. (Stewart’s racist tendencies and anger issues began to come to light, as well.) Poring over trial transcripts, Knapp began to notice inconsistencies in the testimony of the Giles brothers and Joseph. Slowly but surely, he became convinced of their innocence in the crime.
Knapp compiled all of his research into a report, which he sent to then-Governor Millard Tawes along with a petition for the commutation of the sentence. His hard work, along with the work of the Defense Committee, led to Governor Tawes’ decision to commute the sentences to life. Buoyed by this success, the fight turned towards a full exoneration for the men. Due to new evidence Knapp uncovered, the men’s defense team was awarded a new trial, which was then overturned by the Maryland Court of Appeals. Miraculously, the case then went to the United States Supreme Court, where it was decided in a 5-4 vote that the conviction was not to be upheld, and the case was sent back to the state of Maryland again. The Court of Appeals ordered a new trial, but Joyce declined to testify. Her refusal to appear in court drove a stake through the State’s case, and the Giles brothers were released in 1967, after six years of incarceration. Johnson was not granted a new trial by the state of Maryland, and he remained in prison until he was granted a gubernatorial pardon in 1968.
The imposition of the death penalty in the Giles-Johnson case had less to do with the nature of the crime and much more to do with the color of the defendants’ skin. In cases of white violence perpetrated against blacks, the scales of justice were not equal. Take the case of Mack Charles Parker—a black man—who had been accused of raping a white woman in Pearl River County, Mississippi. Just days before his trial was set to commence, a mob of white men kidnapped him from his jail cell, beat him horribly, and then shot him twice in the chest at close range. Despite an extensive FBI investigation revealing the perpetrators (as well as an indictment from a federal jury) all of the men accused of murdering Parker were released. This took place in 1959, a short two years before the Giles-Johnson case.
It’s easy to dismiss these cases as a relic of history, an embarrassing reminder of a shameful past. In current day Louisiana, however, the odds of a death sentence being imposed in a case are 97% higher for those whose victim was white than for those whose victim was black. Looking through the cases of individuals exonerated by the Innocence Project will show that 193 of the 311 DNA exonerees are black; at least 40% of all wrongful convictions caused by eyewitness misidentifications were cross-racial (typically a white woman misidentifying a black man).
Then, there is the sobering statistic that one in three black men will serve time in prison at some point in their lives. Black people are still not only disproportionately imprisoned, but policed. Racial inequities in the criminal justice system disenfranchise entire communities by limiting voting rights, accessibility to housing and jobs, and, crucially, education.
The plot of To Kill a Mockingbird is disarmingly similar to the Giles-Johnson case. Atticus Finch, an attorney, is appointed to the defense of Tom Robinson, a black man who has been accused of raping a local white woman. Just as in the Giles-Johnson case, the truth is that the woman had initiated the sexual advances, but out of fear of the shame (and her father’s ensuing wrath), the fictional Mayella Ewell claims rape. At Tom’s trial, Atticus Finch gives a memorable closing statement:
“Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system – that’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality!”
The Giles-Johnson case has become the stuff of legend in my family. Uncle Buddy cared deeply about seeing justice done, and for that endured death threats against him and his family, years of frustrating delays and inaction on the part of the courts, late nights and long hours. He believed that the integrity of the American justice system was an ideal worth fighting for. His story—and those like it— are bright spots in a system plagued by seemingly constant miscarriages of justice.
This story reminds me of the power of one person to shed light on prejudice and unfairness, and it also reminds me of the work that still lies ahead—for every single one of us—in combating racial inequities in our country. Like Atticus Finch, I too would like to believe that faith in the integrity of the criminal justice system is less of an idealistic dream and more of a fundamental certainty.