An Open Letter: Jerry Paul on Trial

The cover features two photos arranged vertically, of a crumbling Southern farmhouse and one of various commercial products made in the South

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 1, "Packaging the New South." Find more from that issue here.

Sometime early in 1978, a jury in North Carolina will hear charges against attorney Jerry Paul that could end his practice of law. Every lawyer, and every person who may someday need a lawyer, should be aware of this case and what it means. 

The North Carolina Bar Association brought the charges. Under North Carolina procedure, a jury will hear evidence. If the jurors decide the charges are true, a committee of the Bar will fix punishment, which could be disbarment. 

The charges grow out of Paul's defense of Joan Little in her 1975 murder trial. All of them involve things he is alleged to have said to the news media — some before the trial, some long afterward, and all outside the courtroom far from the hearing of the jury. 

Specifically, Paul is accused of violating the Bar's "Code of Professional Responsibility" by (1) calling himself a "freedom-fighter"; (2) calling the Little trial judge "old-fashioned"; (3) saying the North Carolina judicial system is racist; (4) describing Ms. Little as "innocent"; and (5) saying the size of the pocketbook available has a lot to do with the kind of justice a defendant gets. 

Under the First Amendment of the US Constitution, how can a man be denied the right to practice his profession for expressing such opinions? To understand this case, one must understand the situation in North Carolina at the time of the Little trial and beyond — and the role that Jerry Paul has played in that state for almost a decade. 

Jerry Paul believes that a defendant is more likely to get justice if the public knows about a case. So he cooperates with organizations that are getting the word out and building mass movements. 

This worked in Ms. Little's case, as it has worked in many others. Ms. Little was by no means the first black woman to be sexually assaulted in a Southern jail. But this time the nation heard about it, and the eyes of the world were on the Raleigh courtroom where she was tried. The judge had to rule fairly, so the defense got a jury that was fair. 

If legal ethics demand that a lawyer work in the best interest of his client, Paul surely did. But for those in power in North Carolina, what he did was highly embarrassing. 

"The people who run this state want at all costs to maintain their moderate image on racial things because then they can do all the unionbusting they want to," Paul said recently. 

In 1975, the state's image was already in trouble. There was the Wilmington case, the Charlotte 3, and the largest Death Row population in the country. On top of all this came Joan Little. 

Before the trial started, the Bar Association assigned lawyers to "watch” Paul. He learned about that from a lawyer who was asked to cooperate and refused. 

Actually, the Bar had been "watching" Paul for a long time. In the late '60s and early '70s — when black students across North Carolina were going to jail in mass for protesting injustice in newly-desegregated schools — it was Jerry Paul who was defending them. Not just in the courtroom, but in mass meetings and the court of public opinion. 

When a chief of police in eastern North Carolina planted drugs on a young black man, Paul exposed it. When a black youth was shot by a policeman and the state brought criminal charges against the victim, Paul brought charges against the policeman in civil court and won. 

Paul wasn't urging innocent defendants to cop guilty pleas. He wasn't turning away clients who had no money. He was handling seventy percent of his cases without fee, taking bartered services for others, and traveling the state representing the dispossessed and the poor. 

Jerry Paul just didn't — and doesn't — fit the mold powerful people in Bar Associations have carved out for lawyers. Growing up with wealthy adoptive parents, who later disowned him, in Joan Little's home town of Washington, NC, he was always a rebel. By the time he began practicing law in Greenville, NC, in 1968, he says he knew three things: 

"I knew it was more important what kind of human being I'd be in twenty years than how much money I made. I knew something had to be done about racism, because it was getting in the way of everything worthwhile. And I knew I wanted to create a law practice in which attorneys could fight on the side of people being kicked around — instead of being part of the lawyers' club that helps do the kicking." 

He did that and in nine years has represented more than nine thousand clients, counting all those jailed in mass arrests. Many of them were innocent of any crime except asserting their rights or being poor. And because Paul fought outside the courtroom as well as in it, many of them went free. 

That's the kind of law practice the North Carolina Bar has set out to destroy. If they succeed, life will no doubt be more comfortable for the people who run the state. But where will it leave the people without power and money who are looking for a lawyer? If Paul is disbarred, other lawyers in North Carolina (and elsewhere) will surely get the message. Jerry Paul has already spent nine days in jail as a result of the Little case — for contempt because he told the judge he was acting like Alice in Wonderland's Queen of Hearts ("Off with their heads"). Paul survived those nine days unscathed, and although it's much more serious, he can no doubt survive being disbarred and find another way to make a living. 

It's the rest of us who should be concerned about this case — for ourselves and our own future. We can help by making an earmarked gift to the NC Legal Defense Fund, P.O. Box 643, Chapel Hill, NC 27514, and by letting the NC Bar Association (107 Fayetteville St., Raleigh 27601) know what we think. 

— Anne Braden 

Louisville, Kentucky