The Knapp Papers: Citizen Involvement in the Giles-Johnson Case

Racial injustice in the state of Maryland has a long, painful history. This semester, while working as a student assistant for Special Collections, I processed the Harold A. and Barbara B. Knapp papers. This archival collection sheds light on an example of this difficult history and demonstrates that everyday citizens can play a role in challenging racially-motivated law enforcement and legal decisions.

The Harold A. and Barbara B. Knapp papers document a white couple’s involvement with the Giles-Johnson Defense Committee. This volunteer group of about sixty Montgomery County citizens worked for the defense of James and John Giles and Joseph Johnson, three African-American men accused of raping a white, teenaged girl in 1961. The Knapp papers were donated by Barbara Knapp in May 2018, and complement an existing collection at UMD, the Giles-Johnson Defense Committee records. The Knapp papers collection is useful for researchers studying race relations in Maryland, sexual assault cases, and capital punishment.  The collection also provides important documentation on civil rights, citizen action, and community activism.

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John Giles (left) and James Giles (right) at the Maryland Penitentiary in December 1963. Harold A. and Barbara B. Knapp papers.

The collection includes correspondence, reports, notes, legal documents, clippings, a scrapbook, and audio recordings related to the Knapps’ involvement with the Giles-Johnson case.  I rehoused the materials in acid-free folders, removed metal fasteners, and separated newspaper clippings from other papers with acid-free paper. After establishing physical control over the collection, I arranged the materials into four series: working files, Giles-Johnson legal documents, related cases, and audio recordings. I then creating a finding aid for the collection with a Historical Note, Scope and Contents Note, and series descriptions. The finding aid for the Knapp papers will eventually be available online.

Processing this collection was challenging because the original file structure needed to be adapted to better aid access to noteworthy groups of materials. Originally, I had arranged the collection into six series, but this turned out to be too complicated. Some of the folders also contained unexpected combinations of documents. In some cases, it was necessary to retitle the folders to provide a more complete description of the materials they contained. It was also hard to describe some of the briefs and other legal documents in the collection. There were a lot of different trials and appeals that I had to keep track of in order to write an accurate finding aid. Creating the finding aid helped me to appreciate the amount of work that was involved in the Knapps’ investigations. The Knapps did not have legal backgrounds themselves, but they invested a lot of time and effort to figure out what happened in the Giles-Johnson case and to share their findings with people in positions of power. Together with the other members of the Giles-Johnson Defense Committee, they showed that a small group of motivated citizens can successfully change the outcome of a complex case.

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Joseph Johnson with sheriff during his 1962 trial. Harold A. and Barbara B. Knapp papers.

The Giles brothers were tried for rape in Montgomery County and were sentenced to death on December 11, 1961 by Judge James H. Pugh. After the Giles brothers received the death penalty, attorneys for Joseph Johnson requested to change the venue for Johnson’s trial to Anne Arundel County. Despite this change, Johnson was sentenced to death by Judge Matthew S. Evans on November 20, 1962. The Giles-Johnson Defense Committee was established in July 1962 by Frances (Mrs. Howard) Ross, who employed the Giles brothers’ mother as a housekeeper. Harold and Barbara Knapp became involved with the group during the following year and primarily undertook research and publicity activities on behalf of the committee. They reviewed police and court records and noted some inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case. Harold and Barbara Knapp also identified individuals who were familiar with the original incident or with the people involved. They interviewed these witnesses and were able to persuade some of them to sign affidavits about the character of the defendants and their accuser. The Knapps and other Giles-Johnson Defense Committee members originally believed that the three men were guilty and sought only to reduce their sentences. But as the Knapps continued to research the case and uncover additional evidence, they became increasingly convinced that the Giles brothers and Joseph Johnson were actually innocent.   

The Giles-Johnson Defense Committee shared this evidence with the defendants’ attorneys and supported their efforts to secure new trials for the three men. The legal team argued that the state suppressed evidence and relied on perjured testimony in order to convict the defendants. After various hearings and appeals (including a Supreme Court case), the Giles brothers and Joseph Johnson were eventually freed from prison. Without the efforts of the Knapps and the rest of the committee, their reprieve from the death penalty and subsequent release might not have occurred.

Researchers interested in the Giles-Johnson case may also want to consult the Giles-Johnson Defense Committee records, which contain additional materials donated by Mrs. Howard Ross, the Knapps, and other members of the committee. Both the Knapp papers and the records of the Giles-Johnson Defense Committee are available to view in the Maryland Room of Hornbake Library.

Emily Flint is a second year MLIS student in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. She works in the State of Maryland and Historical Collections at UMD’s Special Collections and University Archives.

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