On July 20, 1961, three black men – Joseph Johnson and his friends, brothers John and James Giles – were fishing in a wooded area near predominantly white Montgomery County, Maryland. As they walked back to their car, they passed by a parked car and saw 21-year-old Stewart Foster and 16-year-old Joyce Roberts sitting inside. According to Johnson and the Giles brothers, Johnson asked Foster for a cigarette, and an altercation including racial epithets ensued. They admitted Johnson ended up breaking the car windows, though they claimed they feared Foster was reaching for a gun, and got into a fistfight with Foster. According to Foster and Stewart, the Giles brothers and Johnson had demanded money from them and then smashed in the car windows.
While this fight between Johnson and Foster was taking place, Roberts ran off into the woods, and John Giles followed her. Eventually, James Giles and Johnson joined them in the woods. Foster, injured in the fight, had run off to a nearby house to find help. The Giles brothers and Johnson reported that Roberts then offered to have sex with them, claiming she told them “I’ve already had sixteen or seventeen this week and three more won’t make a difference” and then disrobed. They claimed that she also told them that she was already on probation and in trouble, so if anyone found out about this sexual encounter, she was planning to claim she’d been raped. The men reported that Joseph Johnson, followed by James Giles, both then had consensual sex with Roberts but that John Giles did not have any type of sexual relations with Roberts.
The men were still in the woods with Roberts when they heard the sirens of the police, who had been summoned by Stewart Foster. The police apprehended Johnson and James Giles, and John Giles later turned himself in. While the men claimed the sexual encounter had taken place with just James Giles and Johnson and had been consensual, Roberts claimed she had been raped by all three men. At their trial in Montgomery County in December 1961, the Giles brothers were both convicted by their all-white jury and sentenced to death. In nearby Anne Arundel County the following fall, Johnson was also convicted and sentenced to death. His jury included two black jurors.
The mother of the Giles brothers worked as a maid for a prominent liberal family in town, and that family, concerned over the imposition of the death penalty in this case, began raising funds for an appeal and started a petition requesting that the governor grant the men clemency. A U.S. Department of Defense scientist named Harold Knapp became an outspoken advocate for the Giles brothers and Johnson, and Knapp began investigating the background of the case.
Knapp uncovered witness testimony that was consistent with the defendants’ version of events. This evidence, which supported the claims that the sexual encounters had been consensual and that Roberts had denied this to police because she was on probation, had not been made available to defense counsel. Evidence was also uncovered to show that Roberts had recently been admitted to a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt and two other rape claims that she then refused to confirm when the claims were investigated. With the two parties telling such different stories of what occurred, the court ruled that credibility of the witnesses, and therefore evidence of mental disturbance, was relevant. Additionally, the original police report from the crime was uncovered, and it stated that Roberts had initially reported that only two of the three men had raped her – unlike her trial testimony, in which she stated that all three men had raped her.
This information and the petition were submitted to Maryland Governor J. Millard Tawes, who commuted the men’s sentences to life in prison. The attorney for the Giles brothers was able to use the new evidence uncovered by Knapp to appeal their case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that the testimony corroborating the brothers’ version of events and the evidence regarding Roberts’s mental state and reliability had been suppressed, and the men were granted new trials. The Giles brothers were released on bond in March 1967 to await their retrial. However, Roberts refused to testify at another trial, and the charges were dropped on October 30, 1967. “The 22 months on death row was the worst part,” James reported after his release. “That seemed longer than all the rest of the months and years.”
Joseph Johnson had not been a party to the Giles brothers’ appeal and remained in prison until Governor Spiro Agnew pardoned him on February 9, 1968.
- Meghan Barrett Cousino
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.