Giles-Johnson case: 1961-67
In July 1961, three young African Americans had been fishing in the Patuxent River in a rural part of Montgomery County, Maryland.

They stumbled upon a parked car occupied a young white couple. One of the men tried to bum a cigarette and was met with racial epithets by the white man. A fistfight ensued and the three men left the scene.

The stories diverged at this point with the African American men saying the woman accompanied them voluntarily and the 16-year old woman later claiming she was dragged from the car and raped.

James (17) and John (19) Giles were quickly found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced to death by the infamous Montgomery County Judge James Pugh. Joe Johnson (23) was tried separately, but with the same result.

The story would probably have ended with their execution, except that their mother worked as a maid inn the home of Frances Baker Ross, a Democratic Party precinct chairwoman. Ross was did not believe the three men to be innocent, but felt the death penalty was too harsh and formed the Giles-Johnson Defense Committee. The campaign focused on the death sentences as none really believed the three to be innocent.

However, Dr. Harold Knapp, an MIT educated nuclear-weapons scientist, working for the Department of Defense in Washington came upon the Giles-Johnson case (and the campaign of their Defense Committee) in a local newspaper column that supported the death sentences.

Knapp, using the theatrical term was “cast against type” and wrote a letter to the editor against the death sentence and became involved in the Defense Committee. Knapp began examining evidence and interviewing witnesses himself. Over time, Knapp became convinced of the three men’s innocence.

Ultimately, Knapp wrote Maryland Governor Millard Tawes with a long list of facts and arguments along with a petition for the commutation of the sentence.

His work, along with the work of the Defense Committee, led to Governor Tawes’ decision to commute the sentences to life.

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. Famed civil rights attorney Joseph Forer was the lead attorney for the defendants.

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 the young woman 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 case is sometimes referred to as Maryland’s “Scottsboro Boys” – a reference to the 1930s campaign to free eight black men charged with rape of two white women and sentenced to death in Alabama in the 1930s.

However, unlike their more radical communist predecessors in the Scottsboro case 30 years before, white liberals in Montgomery County at that time did not see the initial prosecution as a problem. It was only the severity of the sentence for the African Americans that caused a problem for them.

After the commutation of the sentences, the Committee focused on the legal issues of dues process and rarely raised the issue of why the men were prosecuted in the first place.

Knapp’s own determination and unique position in society to get the facts ultimately shed light on evidence that was never considered by investigators, the prosecution, the jury or the judge.

In the end, it was a number of twists of fate that laid bare the blatantly racist judicial system of 1960s Montgomery County: the mother working in the home of a connected white liberal and the subsequent formation of a defense committee followed by the publicity of the defense committee that drew Knapp into the case. This combined with a rising awareness created by the larger civil rights movement saved the lives of three men.

Thanks to Hannah Riley for some of the information contained in this summary.
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