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‘Miscarriage of justice’: Florida finally pardons four black men accused of rape in 1949

Walter Irvin speaks with his attorneys, including future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Seventy years ago in Groveland, Fla., a white teenager named Norma Padgett accused four black men of kidnapping and raping her in a car on a dark road.

Two of the men would eventually be shot dead by the segregationist sheriff of Lake County and his angry mob, and the other two wrongfully convicted on little evidence. The case of the Groveland Four, as they became known, inspired a Pulitzer Prize-winning book and has been considered for decades one of Florida’s most grave injustices and a symbol of racism in the Jim Crow South.

In 2017, the state of Florida formally apologized for what happened in the summer of 1949. And on Friday, the state’s clemency board voted to posthumously pardon all four men: Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin.

The deciding factor, the board said, was not whether Padgett lied — as the relatives of the accused insisted she’d done — but whether the men ever had a chance at a fair trial. Padgett, now 86, watched from her wheelchair as newly inaugurated Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) declared that they had not. He called the case a “miscarriage of justice" and said that the “appropriate thing to do is grant pardons.”

The board voted unanimously for clemency, and the descendants of the Groveland Four embraced.

“I hope that this will bring peace to their families and their communities,” DeSantis said.

Padgett’s appearance at the hearing, in which she insisted she had told “the truth,” marked the first time she had spoken publicly about her accusations outside a courtroom — and the first time since the trials decades ago that Padgett had sat among the Groveland Four’s families.

The case began on a summer night in 1949. Padgett told authorities that she and her husband, Willie Padgett, had been driving back from a dance when their car broke down. Shepherd and Irvin, friends from the Army, reportedly stopped to help. But the Padgetts would later tell law enforcement in Lake County that the men, plus Thomas and Greenlee, attacked Willie and took turns raping Norma.

Within days of Padgett’s accusations, authorities had jailed Shepherd, Greenlee and Irvin. An angry mob led by the white-supremacist sheriff Willis V. McCall chased Thomas 200 miles into the Florida Panhandle, where they shot him dead. In Groveland, rioters torched black-owned homes, sparking unrest so intense that the governor eventually sent in the National Guard.

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At the time, townspeople quietly doubted the Padgetts' version of events amid speculation that her account was merely a coverup for her husband’s suspected beatings. Despite a lack of evidence, a jury quickly convicted the three men who were still alive.

Greenlee, just 16 at the time, was sent to prison for life. Shepherd and Irvin were initially sentenced to death.

At the hearing Friday, about 15 people attended on the Groveland Four’s behalf, including surviving family members, Florida lawmakers, legal advocates and Gilbert King, the author of “Devil in the Grove,” the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning book that revived interest in the case and unearthed new evidence from once-redacted FBI files.

King found evidence that Padgett had perjured herself and documents that proved the doctor who examined her that night found no physical evidence of rape. He also wrote that the sheriff’s office fabricated footprint evidence that supposedly linked the men to the crime scene.

He celebrated the pardons Friday: “I don’t think there was anything greater than being able to witness that today.”

The path to the pardons began in 2015, when Josh Venkataraman read King’s book in a college history class and started an online petition “Exonerate the Groveland Four.

The city of Groveland and Lake County first apologized to the men and their families in 2016, and a year later the Florida House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution that did the same. It also called on former governor Rick Scott (R) to expedite the process for granting posthumous pardons.

But instead it was delayed for a year and a half. Venkataraman filed a formal pardon application in June 2017 for Greenlee and Irvin, the only two actually convicted of the alleged crimes. But Scott’s office never took up the case.

Then last week, the board finally emailed Venkataraman with the Jan. 11 hearing date.

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He found out Friday morning that Padgett, whose voice was absent as the case again gained notoriety in recent years, would also be in Tallahassee for the hearing. Before Padgett spoke, lawmakers and Groveland Four family members took turns recalling 70 years of pain.

Beverly Robinson, a cousin of Shepherd, directly addressed Padgett and her family.

“It never happened, Miss Padgett,” Robinson said. “You all are liars.”

She said emphatically that she did not believe “pardon” was the right word. The men, Robinson said, should be exonerated — a legal action that would not just forgive them but explicitly state that they were innocent.

Soon after, Padgett, in a wheelchair, approached the board.

“My name is Norma Padgett Tyson Upshaw,” she said. “And I am the victim of that night.”

The woman said she kept her alleged rape from her children for many years, she but stated firmly that the story she told decades ago was the “truth.”

“I don’t want them pardoned, no I do not, and you wouldn’t, either," Padgett said. “I know she called me a liar, but I ain’t no liar.”

When the testimony ended and DeSantis called for the vote, Venkataraman grabbed King’s shoulders, then wrapped Carol Greenlee in a hug.

“It felt like the chains fell off," Greenlee said later. "It felt like the door swung open, and it felt like I wanted to jump up and down and say, ‘Rest in peace, daddy, rest in peace. It’s over.’”

Greenlee was in her mother’s womb when her father was accused of raping Padgett. He had been in Lake County that day looking for a job.

He did not appeal his life sentence and was paroled in 1962 after 12 years in prison. Carol Greenlee was 12.

Greenlee rarely spoke of the case, Carol said, because it was so painful. But she had to know what happened that night, so she eventually asked. Her father said he never knew Norma Padgett. The first time he saw the woman, Greenlee told his daughter, was when he was being tried in court.

Greenlee died in 2012 at age 78.

Shepherd and Irvin appealed their death sentence, and although the Florida Supreme Court initially upheld their convictions, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned them and ordered a retrial. But on their return trip from prison to Lake County for their new trial, Sheriff McCall shot them both. He claimed the men had tried to escape.

Shepherd died at the scene. Irvin played dead and survived. He later said the sheriff fired on them in cold blood and bragged on the police radio that he had “got rid of them.”

In his second trial, Irvin was represented by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He was once again convicted, and his execution was scheduled.

An emergency stay saved his life. Later, Florida Gov. Leroy Collins (D) commissioned a report on the case and commuted Irvin’s sentence to life in prison.

Irvin was released in 1968 and died one year later, of a heart attack, on a trip back to Lake County for a funeral. His family told King that what really killed Irvin, who was 41, were the untreated gunshot wounds inflicted by the sheriff — and the nearly two decades he spent in prison.

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