Florida Pardons the Groveland Four: Black Men Wrongly Convicted Of Raping White Teenager In 1949

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Reuben Hatcher, the jailer at left, stood with Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, three of the four men known as the Groveland Four, in August 1949. At right is Sheriff Willis McCall, who later shot Mr. Shepherd and Mr. Irvin. Credit via Gary Corsair
Florida’s new governor and the state’s cabinet voted unanimously to pardon the “Groveland Four” this week.
By Paula Rogo, Essence

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the state’s three-member Cabinet have granted posthumous pardons Friday to four Black men accused of raping a white woman in a 1949 case that they called “a miscarriage of justice.”

The Groveland Four, as the case was known, was a case long-known for the racial injustice it bore upon the four men it affected: Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, and Ernest Thomas.

“I don’t know that there’s any way you can look at this case and think that those ideals of justice were satisfied,” Mr. DeSantis said. “Indeed, they were perverted, time and time again.”

The woman who accused them rape—she was 17 at the time — did not retract her statement of being raped, Norma Padgett had claimed that she was abducted and raped by four Black men after her car broke down.

Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd were charged, imprisoned and beaten that night in the basement of a county jail. Thomas tried to escape, but was hunted down “by an armed, deputized posse of approximately 1,000 men with bloodhounds,“ according to a detailed apology offered to the men by state legislators in 2017. He was shot dead before being either charged or tried.

Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison by an all-white jury. Irvin and Shepherd, both World War II veterans, were sentenced to death.

Their capital case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered a retrial. But before the second trial could begin, Lake County, Fla., Sheriff Willis McCall drove the two handcuffed men into the countryside and shot them. Irvin was wounded, Shepherd died on the spot.

McCall claimed self-defense.

Irvin — who was represented by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall — was later sentenced to death again. That sentence was later commuted to life in prison. He died in 1969 after being released on parole for just one year.

Greenlee was released from prison in 1962 and lived until he was 78 in 2012.

In 2017, the state of Florida formally apologized to the families of the Groveland Four. That helped to pave the way for Friday’s pardon under Mr. DeSantis, who was inaugurated earlier this week.

This article originally appeared in Essence.

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