Voices

The Groveland Four : Florida Pardons 4 Black Men Accused of 1949 Rape

The Groveland Four “were the victims of gross injustices and that their abhorrent treatment by the criminal justice system is a shameful chapter in this state’s history,” said the Florida legislature, Buzz Feed reported.

Four black men — Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas — have been posthumously pardoned nearly 70 years after they were accused of raping a white woman in Lake County, Florida, in 1949.

The Florida legislature had voted unanimously in 2017 to issue a formal apology to the families of the so-called Groveland Four, saying in a resolution that the group of men “were the victims of gross injustices and that their abhorrent treatment by the criminal justice system is a shameful chapter in this state’s history.”

Norma Padgett, now 86, was 17 at the time she made the accusations against the four men. She has maintained her account of the event throughout the years, and on Friday asked the Clemency Board not to pardon the men. “I’m begging y’all not to give ‘em pardon because they done it,” she said.

The legislature’s resolution acknowledged a litany of injustices that followed the accusation, including the murders of two of the men, the attempted murder of a third, beatings, and evidence tampering.

“Ernest Thomas was killed in a hail of gunfire as he slept beside a tree before he could answer questions or declare his innocence,” the resolution reads. He had fled before law enforcement was able to locate him for questioning, and was hunted by an armed mob of roughly 1,000 men with bloodhounds.

The remaining three were convicted by an all-white jury. Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death and Greenlee, who was a minor at the time was sentenced to life in prison.

Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, who were both WWII veterans, had their sentences overturned by the US Supreme Court in 1951 after the case was taken up by Thurgood Marshall. Marshall was the Executive Director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund at the time. The case was ordered to a retrial.

Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot both Shepherd and Irvin on a dirt road while transporting them to a pretrial hearing.

Shepherd died at the scene, but Irvin survived to testify that he had also been shot by deputy James Yates as he lay on the ground handcuffed to Shepherd.

The resolution also notes that treatment of Irvin’s wounds was delayed because the ambulance refused to transport a black man.

“I’m gonna be able to always open my eyes and see [McCall] looking at the ground,” Irvin’s sister Henrietta, 87, told BuzzFeed News recalling a picture showing the sheriff looking down at the two men he had shot laying along the side of the road.

Greenlee said the pardon has provided some closure for the family, but that their work isn’t done.

“God answered my prayers. We got the vote, and the pardon,” he said. “I was very very excited about that. But a pardon doesn’t exonerate. So, we’re gonna be looking for exoneration.”

Greenlee lamented that 70 years after his brother was wrongly accused, he is worried that racism is on the rise once again.

“People back then was wide open with the racism. The Ku Klux Klan was wide awake,” Greenlee recalled. “After integration things quieted down a bit, but since Mr. Trump been in the office the dragon is raising his head again.”