Groveland Four, the black men pardoned after 1949 rape accusation, honored with memorial

The 70-year-old case against Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Earnest Thomas has remained a disturbing example of racial injustice from the Jim Crow-era.
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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

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By Erik Ortiz

Family members of the four young black men accused of raping a white woman in Florida 70 years ago gathered Friday for the unveiling of a memorial that lays bare the "gross injustices" they endured.

But amid the celebration, the families of those men — known as the Groveland Four — told the large crowd in attendance that the struggle to clear their names is far from over.

While Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Earnest Thomas were posthumously pardoned of the crime last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the four have not been exonerated.

"It's hard to put into words and have you understand the pain and hardships this injustice has caused this family for 70 years," Gerald Threat, a nephew of Irvin's, said at the unveiling. Irvin died in 1969, a year after he was released on parole.

"The only thing that can rectify this injustice is a full exoneration by the state," Threat added. "We cannot pick and choose what we allow. It's all or nothing."

The pardon forgave the men for the crime, but an exoneration would declare that they did not commit the rape against the victim, a then-17-year-old named Norma Padgett, who was living in the community of Groveland. Now in her 80s, Padgett appeared before the clemency board in January 2019 to ask them to not pardon the men.

On Friday, with DeSantis in attendance, other family members of the men also urged for an exoneration.

"I think we haven't reached the end of the road, but we have come a long way," said Carol Greenlee, the daughter of Charles Greenlee, who was 16 and the youngest of the suspects when an all-white jury sentenced him to life in prison.

"Give me hope that we will make that final push for exoneration," she added.

State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat, and other supporters at the dedication said they will continue fighting to clear the men's names.

Thompson has previously said that DeSantis, a Republican who assumed office more than a year ago, was made aware of the exoneration request. The state constitution, however, doesn't give the governor or the clemency board the power to exonerate someone.

Typically, it takes a court to overturn a conviction and for prosecutors to drop the charges, which would then effectively exonerate the person.

The Groveland Four case has been made more complicated because it is now several decades old and the defendants have all died. Thompson said in December she would instead push for a joint House-Senate resolution that would recognize the men as being exonerated.

During Friday's event, DeSantis called the conviction of the four a "miscarriage of justice" and that a pardon "brought justice to the historical record."

Since 1989, Florida has seen 79 exonerations, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

The case against Greenlee, Irvin, Shepherd and Thomas has continued to reverberate as a disturbing example of racial injustice from the Jim Crow-era.

In the summer of 1949, Padgett and her husband, Willie Padgett, were driving home from a dance when their car broke down, she told police. Padgett said two of the men stopped to help them before they were joined by two others who attacked her husband and raped her.

The authorities arrested Greenlee, Irvin and Shepherd. Thomas was killed by a mob led by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, and the crime sparked a wave of violence against black residents of Groveland that required the attention of the National Guard.

Greenlee, Irvin and Shepherd were beaten during their time in custody.

The NAACP's Thurgood Marshall had helped Irvin and Shepherd win retrials in the case after appealing the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1951, while Irvin and Shepherd were being transported, McCall shot the men, claiming they tried to escape. Shepherd, a World War II veteran, died, but Irvin survived and was convicted even though an FBI agent testified that prosecutors manufactured evidence against the men.

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.

Greenlee was paroled in 1962, and died in 2012.

In 1972, McCall was indicted for murder in a separate case involving a black prisoner but was acquitted by an all-white jury.

Two books — "Legal Lynching: The Sad Saga of the Groveland Four," published in 2004, and "Devil in the Grove," which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2013 — analyzed how the case was handled and cast doubt on the guilt of the Groveland Four and Padgett's version of events.

Padgett has not retracted the story and told the clemency board "not to give the pardons because they did it."

Gary Corsair, the author of "Legal Lynching," applauded the actions to recognize the men. He said Friday during the memorial's unveiling that it is a "rare thing for a community to look at itself and say our predecessors did wrong and we want to make it right."