Four Black men known as Florida’s “Groveland Four” have been exonerated after being wrongfully accused of raping a white teen in 1949.
Lake County Circuit Court Judge Heidi Davis granted the motion to clear two of the men of their convictions, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin, and dismissed the indictments against Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd on Nov. 22.
The clearing of each of the four men’s names may be decades too late for them, but offers a glimmer of hope for other families facing similar realities. “I hope that this is a start because a lot of people didn’t get this opportunity,” said Aaron Newson, Thomas’ nephew. “A lot of families didn’t get this opportunity. Maybe they will. This country needs to come together.”
The nightmarish “miscarriage of justice” began on the night of July 16, 1949, when 17-year-old Norma Padgett claimed the four young men — aged 16 to 26 — raped her and assaulted her husband when her car broke down on a Groveland road. The men ended up indicted for the crime despite little to no evidence corroborating that they were guilty.
Thomas attempted to flee the town located just 30 miles west of Orlando. He was found during a manhunt and reportedly shot dozens of times. Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to the death penalty. In 1951, while being transported to a retrial, both men would be shot by a local sheriff claiming the men attempted to escape.
Shepherd died from his injuries, Irvin survived and later saw his sentence commuted to a life term under the representation of future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Greenlee, who was 16 at the time, was sentenced to life; though he would later be paroled in 1962. He died in 2012.
State attorney Bill Gladson, who filed the motion to exonerate the four men in October, stated, “The evidence strongly suggests that a sheriff, a judge, and prosecutor all but guaranteed guilty verdicts in this case. These officials, disguised as keepers of the peace and masquerading as ministers of justice, disregarded their oaths, and set in motion a series of events that forever destroyed these men, their families, and a community.”
The exoneration concludes the state’s reckoning with the Groveland Four case, which has been years in the making. In 2019, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pardoned the four men.
“For seventy years, these four men have had their history wrongly written for crimes they did not commit. As I have said before, while that is a long time to wait, it is never too late to do the right thing,” said DeSantis. “I believe the rule of law is society’s sacred bond. When it is trampled, we all suffer. For the Groveland Four, the truth was buried. The Perpetrators celebrated. But justice has cried out from that day until this.”
Six years after the Groveland Four case, the South dealt with a second incident that rocked the country to its core: the death of Emmett Till. Till, 14 at the time, was accused of making an advance at a white woman. He was brutally murdered by enraged white men in Money, Mississippi. His body would be discovered tethered in barbed wire to a cotton gin fan in the Tallahatchie River. His accuser would later recant her story.
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