Among the pockets of the Deep South gripped by racist Jim Crow laws in the 1940s and 1950s, Lake County, Fla., ranked among the worst.
The region, smack in the middle of the state’s peninsula, was mostly rural orange groves that had been wrestled out of the swampland. For nearly three decades, Sheriff Willis McCall swaggered through Lake County like a sovereign ruler surveying his turf, wielding law and order not as an instrument of justice so much as a cudgel to keep the area’s African Americans in their place.
In 1949, when a young white woman claimed she was raped by a group of young black men, McCall personally oversaw the arrests, torture, trials and convictions of four innocent black men — an injustice that infamously became known as the “Groveland Four” case.
Today, thanks to a Pulitzer-Prize-winning book and increased attention on the case, the “Groveland Four” convictions have become known as among the ugliest chapters in American legal history. But despite a push from the families of the four men — Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas — and the Florida legislature, outgoing Gov. Rick Scott (R) has failed to issue them a pardon.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Florida’s clemency board was scheduled to have its final meeting during Scott’s administration on Wednesday. The “Groveland Four,” however, were not on the official agenda, and the meeting was eventually postponed indefinitely because of the death of former president George H.W. Bush.
The failure to act on the nearly 70-year-old injustice adds an unsettling coda to Scott’s years in office, a time when Florida struggled through a number of racially charged controversies, including the recent governor’s race. Without the clemency board’s pardon, it’s unclear whether one of Florida’s great moral failings will ever be put right.
“My expectations are really low,” Bobby DuBose, a Democratic state representative from Fort Lauderdale who sponsored bipartisan legislature pushing for the pardon, told Florida Politics on Monday.
The “Groveland Four” case checked all the boxes for a legal nightmare: It included a false allegation of rape; loaded racial dynamics; a lynch mob; defendants railroaded to death row; and quick-trigger lawmen who may have been out to murder their prisoners.
It all started on a summer evening in July 1949, when Willie Padgett and his 17-year-old wife, Norma, had their car break down on a rural road coming back from a dance. Shepherd and Irvin, friends and former Army buddies, reportedly stopped to help. Later, the couple would tell Lake County authorities the two men, along, with Greenlee and Thomas, attacked Willie and then raped Norma.
Within hours of the allegation, Shepherd, Irvin and Greenlee (who was 16) were in McCall’s custody, where they were beaten and tortured, according to Gilbert King’s “Devil in the Grove.” Thomas fled, only to be tracked and fatally shot by law enforcement 200 miles northwest of Lake County. An angry mob of 400 white people surrounded the jail where the three remaining suspects were located. Although they were rushed into hiding, the furious mob descended on Groveland, Lake County’s African American community. Businesses and homes were torched in the ensuing violence.
Although the three men had alibis for the time of the alleged rape, there was no physical evidence tying them to the crime and it was questionable whether an assault even occurred, all three were quickly convicted by a local jury in 1949. Greenlee was given life in prison. Shepherd and Irvin were sent to death row.
Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed aside Shepherd and Irvin’s convictions. A retrial was ordered. In November 1951, McCall personally transported the men back to Lake County. Along the way, the car stopped, bullets were fired, and both Shepherd and Irvin were shot.
McCall would later claim the two had tried to flee when the sheriff pulled over to check a tire.
Shepherd was killed but Irvin survived the shooting and later testified McCall gunned them down in cold blood.
“I got rid of them,” McCall said into his police radio after the shooting, Irvin later said, according to PBS. “Killed the sons of b-----s.” A coroner’s inquest later cleared the sheriff in the shooting.
After recovering from his bullet wounds, Irvin was again put on trial in the alleged assault on Norma Padgett. Although he was represented by Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP attorney behind the organization’s effort to uproot Jim Crow laws and the future Supreme Court justice, Irvin was again convicted and sentenced to die.
By the second conviction, national and international outrage over the case was building to a boiling point. As PBS reported, the Soviet Union even began using the “Groveland Four” case in its propaganda as an example of American racism. Irvin was saved from execution by the Florida governor in 1954. He was later released from prison in 1968, and died of a heart attack two years later. Greenlee was released in 1962 and died in 2012.
Although Greenlee and Irvin spent 33 years in prison for a crime they did not commit, they were never officially pardoned.
Thanks to the national outrage reignited by King’s book and other coverage of the injustice, the Florida legislature passed a resolution in 2017 apologizing for the “grave injustices perpetrated against Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas.” The same legislation urged Scott and his administration “to perform an expedited clemency review.”
That review, however, has stalled.
“We want closure. We want them to come out and pardon, or whatever it may be,” Eddie Lee Irvin Jr., Walter Irvin’s nephew, told Orlando Rising last April. “They got the proof now, the stuff from the FBI, that they were innocent the whole time.”
According to Florida Politics, Scott’s office responded to questions last week about the delayed clemency by stating the administration was continuing “to review all of our options.”
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