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.”
Coming off a bruising campaign for governor where he was labeled a racist by his opponent, newly elected Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had pledged in December to make the pardon a priority after former Gov. Rick Scott had declined to take up the matter despite a request from the Florida legislature that he do so.
“I don’t know that there’s any way you can look at this case and think those ideals of justice were satisfied,” DeSantis said during a hearing of the state’s clemency board on Friday morning. “Indeed, they were perverted time and time again. And I think that the way this was carried out was a miscarriage of justice.”
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.
Shepherd and Irvin, who were both World War II 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 lying along the side of the road.
“It’s not a good thought, you know?” she added.
“I think what a lot of it speaks to is the power that Willis McCall wielded in Lake County,” said Gary Corsair, who wrote a 2004 book about the Groveland Four that Henrietta Irvin and other surviving relatives of the group credited with bringing the case back into the public eye.
A second book about the case, Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013.
“No one was going to dare question the official version while the sheriff was alive,” said Corsair.
He also recalled accounts of reporters who had serious doubts about the case, but “they weren’t going to print those doubts because they knew it would bring retaliation.”
“Florida was a very bloody state,” said Corsair. “Lynching, beatings, false rape accusations.”
“It’s just exhausting to think how many times lawless whites took justice into their own hands,” he said.
The Orlando Sentinel published its own apology on Thursday, writing “the paper inflamed the public several days later, publishing on the front page a cartoon that showed four empty electric chairs and labeled ‘The Lake County Tragedy’ and ‘The Supreme Penalty.’ Above the cartoon, a title read, ‘No Compromise!’ The cartoon ran just as a grand jury was convening. It quickly returned murder indictments against the men.”
“Back in ’49, ain’t nothing but race,” Charles’ brother Wade Greenlee, 76, told BuzzFeed News during a phone interview. “All they had to say was somebody black did something, and it didn’t matter if you were right or not. You just had to be in the vicinity and they said you was going to jail.”
“It should’ve been more investigations,” said Henrietta Irvin. “But I know my brother, and I just feel like he died for nothing.”
Wade 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.”