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Groveland Four, the Black men accused in a 1949 rape, get case dismissed

A hearing in Florida to toss the Jim Crow-era convictions of Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas resulted in a rare finding.
Image: Groveland Four
From left, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall and an unidentified man stand next to Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee in Florida in 1949.State Library and Archives of Florida via AP

In the summer of 1949, a 17-year-old lodged an accusation that would thrust the rural Florida community of Groveland into decadeslong turmoil: The white teenager told police she and her husband were driving home from a dance when they were attacked by four young Black men who abducted and raped her at gunpoint.

The claims made by Norma Padgett, who is now in her 80s, set off a manhunt that spurred an onslaught of violence against Black residents of Groveland, near Orlando, mobilizing the National Guard and prompting Thurgood Marshall, then a lead attorney for the NAACP, to take up the cause of the men who would come to be known as the Groveland Four.

It took seven decades before the state of Florida formally recognized how the four accused — Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas — were failed by the criminal justice system. Thomas was gunned down by a mob in the wake of Padgett's allegations, and the others have also since died. In 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued the Groveland Four a posthumous pardon.

But Monday morning, a circuit court judge in Lake County went further, clearing the charges against the men and issuing a ruling that effectively exonerated them of the crime. Bill Gladson, a local prosecutor, set the extraordinary move into motion last month when he filed paperwork to toss Thomas' and Shepherd's indictments and set aside the sentences and judgments imposed on Greenlee and Irvin.

"We followed the evidence to see where it led us, and it led us to this moment," Gladson said at a news conference following the judge's decision.

Carol Greenlee, the daughter of Charles Greenlee, who at 16 was the youngest of the suspects, wept and fell into the arms of those next to her as a judge formally dismissed the charges.

"If you know something is right, stand up for it," she said later of the lessons she learned. "Be persistent."

In an earlier statement, Carol Greenlee said that despite proclamations from the governor and the state Legislature and a monument dedicated in honor of the Groveland Four, the families were awaiting "full justice" from the judicial branch to feel vindicated.

Among those who traveled to Florida to witness the court's decision was Marshall's son, Thurgood Marshall Jr.

"There are countless people we need to remember who suffered similar fates who have been lost to history," Marshall Jr. said at the news conference. "Perhaps of all the cases my father worked on, this one haunted him for many, many years. And he believed there were better days ahead."

The Groveland Four became a disturbing example of racial injustice from the Jim Crow-era, and preceded the high-profile killing of Emmett Till, a Black 14-year-old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 by white men after he was accused of whistling at a white woman.

Such incidents show how the desire to protect white women was used to justify racism and the oppression of Black people's rights, said author Gilbert King, whose book "Devil in the Grove," which investigated the Groveland Four case and won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2013.

Gladson's appeal to ask a judge to dismiss charges against the Groveland Four was not based on whether Padgett may be lying, King said, but rather on the prosecutorial misconduct and the fabrication of evidence at the time.

Padgett had said the couple’s car had stalled as they drove home from the dance when they were confronted by the four Black men who attacked her husband before abducting and raping her.

Following her accusations, a mob of hundreds of white men led by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall tracked Thomas to a swamp, where they found him asleep and shot him more than 400 times. Meanwhile, Greenlee, Irvin and Shepherd were arrested and later convicted by all-white juries.

Marshall, who years later would become the first Black justice of the Supreme Court, had helped Irvin and Shepherd win appeals to have their case retried. In 1951, while Irvin and Shepherd were being transported, McCall shot the men, claiming they tried to escape. Shepherd, a World War II veteran, was killed, but Irvin survived and was convicted even though an FBI agent testified that prosecutors manufactured evidence against the men.

Relatives of the Groveland Four, including Carol Greenlee, right, gather at a monument that was unveiled in front of the Old Lake County Courthouse in Tavares, Fla., on Feb. 21, 2020. Joe Burbank / TNS via Getty Images file

Irvin, also a World War II veteran, received the death penalty. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison, and he was eventually paroled in 1968. He died the following year.

Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012.

Padgett has rarely spoken publicly about the case, and her family did not return a message seeking comment. She last appeared before the state clemency board in January 2019 to ask them not to pardon the men.

"Y'all just don't know what kind of horror I've been through for all these many years," she told the board at the time. "I don't want them pardoned, no I do not, and you wouldn't neither."

As part of his investigation, Gladson spoke with a grandson of the prosecutor in the case, now deceased, who said his grandfather and a judge believed no rape occurred. Gladson also had Irvin's pants tested at a crime lab, and the results showed no evidence of semen even though jurors at his trial were made to believe it existed.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Lake County Sheriff Peyton C. Grinnell, state Rep. Geraldine Thompson and other elected officials and family members unveil the Groveland Four monument in front of the Old Lake County Courthouse in Tavares, Fla., on Feb. 21, 2020. Joe Burbank / TNS via Getty Images file

"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," Gladson wrote in his motion. "I have not witnessed a more complete breakdown of the criminal justice system."

The dismissal of the Groveland Four's case is a rarity, particularly when none of the accused are still living, and prosecutors are generally reluctant or unable to revisit older cases because witnesses are no longer alive or documents and evidence are destroyed or missing.

Other states this month moved to recognize people arrested for crimes in such historic cases. A state board in Louisiana unanimously granted a posthumous pardon to Homer Plessy, a Creole man who refused to leave a whites-only train car in the 1890s, which led to the Supreme Court's "separate but equal" ruling. In New York, two men who served decades in prison despite proclaiming their innocence in the 1965 assassination of civil rights icon Malcolm X had their convictions formally thrown out Thursday. Only one of the two men is still alive.

A reopening of civil rights-era cases — and a reckoning with the past — are essential, King said.

"Sometimes, by going back into the past and correcting a gross injustice, it adds more integrity to the court system today," he said.