Almost 67 years after four African American men were accused of raping a Groveland white woman, Groveland city officials will consider a proclamation Tuesday night asking Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet to exonerate the Groveland Four, according to the Associated Press.
In 1949, 17-year-old Norma Padgett accused Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas of sexually assaulting her. Thomas tried to flee Lake County but he was tracked down and killed by a posse. Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death, but later had their sentences overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1951. When Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall was taking Irvin and Shepherd from Raiford State Prison back to Lake County, he claimed the two handcuffed men tried to attack him, so he shot them, killing Shepherd. Irvin, who played dead to survive and said McCall was lying, was sentenced to life in prison. Greenlee, who was a juvenile at the time, was sentenced to life. Both men were paroled in the 1960s, and Irvin died in 1970, while Greenlee died in 2012.
The same year Greenlee died, Gilbert King
published his Pulitzer Prize-winning book called Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America
that revealed FBI records on the case included a medical examination of Padgett that showed no signs of assault. The case has received renewed interest since state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, filed a bill (SB 1036
) that would exonerate the four men, and University of Florida student Josh Venkataraman started an online petition
asking Scott to pardon the four men. The families of Irvin and Greenlee previously asked Scott to expunge the two men's records, but he refused.
The Daily Commercial
reports that Groveland Mayor Tim Loucks has received threats regarding the proclamation. Anonymous phone callers have told him that "bad things happen to people" and to "stop drudging up the past."
“I am just paying them no mind,” Loucks tells the newspaper. “It’s nothing that is going to stop me or others from doing this. But most people have been extremely supportive. I’ve had calls from all over of the state of Florida in support of it. Most people are saying they think it’s a tremendous effort, and some are even asking me why in the world this wasn’t done long ago. All I can think to answer is, 'I don’t know. I really don’t know.'”
Lake County commissioners will discuss passing a similar proclamation at their Tuesday meeting, according to the Daily Commercial.