U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is calling on Florida's next governor and cabinet to pardon the Groveland Four, four African American men falsely accused in 1949 of raping a white woman in Lake County.
Calling it a "horrifying injustice that haunts Florida," Rubio described on the Senate floor Tuesday how 17-year-old Norma Padgett accused Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas of sexually assaulting her almost 70 years ago in Groveland.
"What we can do now, as a state in Florida, is seek the forgiveness of their families and of them for the grave injustice that was committed against them," Rubio said. "This is what I come here to the Senate today, to urge the new Florida Cabinet to do as soon as possible after they take office next month. Because after 70 years, it is time for Florida to do the right thing for the Groveland Four."
Within days of Padgett's accusation, Thomas was hunted and killed by a posse, while a white mob rampaged through Groveland's black community. The other men were tortured in the basement under the Lake County jail by the Sheriff's Office.
A 16-year-old at the time, Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison, but Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death. After the two men had their death penalty sentences overturned in 1951, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, a known white supremacist, was put in charge of transporting them from Raiford State Prison back to the local jail.
McCall, who would later claim the two handcuffed men attacked him, shot Irvin and Shepherd. Shepherd was killed instantly, and Irvin, who pretended to be dead, later told officials McCall staged an escape attempt to justify shooting them unprovoked. Irvin was later sentenced to life in prison, and both he and Greenlee were paroled in the 1960s.
The last of the Groveland Four to die was Greenlee, who passed away in 2012 – about five years before the Florida Legislature finally issued a unanimous formal apology to the four men.
But despite state lawmakers urging Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet to grant the Groveland Four posthumous pardons, Scott and his Cabinet officials have seemingly ignored this request and will likely leave office without pardoning the men.
Incoming Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, though, said Monday she plans to bring up the Groveland Four's case during a Cabinet meeting.
It's a good thing Scott will be in the U.S. Senate next year so Rubio can repeat this speech to his face.
"While there is nothing we can do to give Mr. Thomas or Mr. Shepherd back their lives, there's nothing we can do to give Mr. Irvin or Mr. Greenlee back the years they spent in jail for a crime they did not commit, we can give these men back their good name," Rubio said.
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