Four Black men were exonerated in the 1949 rape of a white woman in Groveland, Florida. According to The New York Times, the charges and convictions of Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Walker Irvin, a group nicknamed the Groveland Four, were dismissed more than 70 years after the false allegation.
“We followed the evidence to see where it led us and it led us to this moment,” said local state attorney Bill Gladson. The families of the men, who have all passed away, have since reacted to the news.
“I would not hate, but 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. I stand here today to say thank you,” said Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee.
Aaron Newson, Thomas’ nephew, expressed his hope that others who were wrongfully accused or convicted in the Jim Crow era get their names cleared as well. “We are blessed,” he said. “I hope that this is a start because lot of people didn’t get this opportunity. A lot of families didn’t get this opportunity. Maybe they will. This country needs to come together.”
The Groveland Four were arrested on the night of July 16, 1949 after Norman Padgett accused them of sexual assault. At the time, the then 17-year-old alleged that her car broke down when the men attacked her husband and proceeded to rape her. When cops arrived at the scene, they tortured Greenlee and Sheperd into accepting responsibility for the assault, but Irvin, who was also beaten, did not give in. Greenlee, who was only 16 at the time of the incident, received a life sentence; Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to the death penalty.
In 1951, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions of the Groveland Four, ordering a retrial due to lack of evidence. On the way to the second trial, Sheriff William McCall shot Sheperd and Irvin, who he claimed was trying to make an escape. Irvin survived the incident but was convicted and sentenced to the death penalty again. His sentence was commuted in 1954, he was paroled in 1968, and he passed away in 1969. Greenlee, who was paroled in 1962, died in 2012.
In 2017, the Florida Legislature formally apologized to the men’s families. Gov. Ron DeSantis issued posthumous pardons to the Groveland Four two years later. On Monday (Nov. 22), Lake County Circuit Court Judge Heidi Davis took things a step further and dismissed the case, dropping the charges against Thomas and Shepherd and the convictions of Greenlee and Irvin.