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‘Groveland Four’ exonerated 72 years after false accusation of rape

Relatives of the Groveland Four — from left, Vivian Shepherd, niece of Sam Shepherd; Gerald Threat, nephew of Walter Irvin; Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee — gather at a monument to the men in front of the Old Lake County courthouse in Tavares, Fla., on Feb. 21, 2020. On Monday, Nov. 22, Florida formally cleared the four Black men who were falsely accused of raping a White woman more than seven decades ago. (Joe Burbank/AP)
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Seventy-two 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. Two years later, the state’s clemency board voted to posthumously pardon all four men: Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin. And on Monday, the four men were finally cleared of wrongdoing.

Circuit Court Judge Heidi Davis of Lake County, Fla., vacated the convictions of Greenlee and Irvin on Monday and dismissed the indictments of Thomas and Shepherd, who were killed before they could be fully tried. The move came after a state attorney asked that the charges against the four men be dropped.

“I will love and embrace all of those who did not know at the time that my father was a caring and loving and compassionate person that did not rape anybody,” Carol Greenlee — the daughter of Charles Greenlee, who was the last surviving member of the Groveland Four before he died in 2012 — said at a news conference Monday after the hearing. “I stand here today to say thank you.”

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, who were 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.

At the time, townspeople quietly doubted the Padgetts’ version of events amid speculation that Norma’s 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.

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 later said that what killed him, at age 41, were the untreated gunshot wounds inflicted by the sheriff — and the nearly two decades he spent in prison.

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In 2012, Gilbert King published the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Devil in the Grove,” which unearthed new evidence from once-redacted FBI files and revived interest in the case. 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.

The path to exoneration began three years later, when Josh Venkataraman read “Devil in the Grove” in a college history class and started an online petition to “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.

In January 2019, the pardon hearing finally took place in Tallahassee. Padgett, whose voice had been absent as the case again gained notoriety in recent years, was present for the hearing. She insisted she had told the truth and argued against pardoning the men.

But the clemency board said the deciding factor 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, then 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.

But it did not bring full peace. During the hearing, Beverly Robinson, a cousin of Shepherd, 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.

On Monday, she finally got her wish.

A version of this story was originally published on Jan. 11, 2019.