Ron DeSantis plans to make pardons for Groveland Four a 'priority'


Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis speaks with reporters at his Election Day rally after declaring victory over his democratic opponent Andrew Gillum. - PHOTO BY JOEY ROULETTE
  • Photo by Joey Roulette
  • Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis speaks with reporters at his Election Day rally after declaring victory over his democratic opponent Andrew Gillum.
Democrat Nikki Fried, the incoming state agriculture commissioner, drew praise at the start of the week when she called for granting a pardon to the “Groveland Four” after next month’s inauguration events.

But her thunder was stolen Wednesday as current Republican Cabinet members appeared to start rushing to take up the case, which they have not addressed in the past.

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, the only Cabinet member who will return to his post in January, started a process Wednesday so that the state clemency board —- comprised of the governor and Cabinet members —- could take up an April 2017 legislative resolution requesting the state clear the four African-American men accused in 1949 of raping a white woman in Lake County.

Patronis spokeswoman Anna Alexopoulos Farrar said the request is for the current board or for the governor and Cabinet that will take office Jan. 8.

Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis said late Thursday he plans to make the issue a "priority" for the first Cabinet meeting in January.

“Seventy years is a long time," DeSantis said in a prepared statement. "And that’s the amount of time four young men have been wrongly written into Florida history for crimes they did not commit and punishments they did not deserve. Justice was miscarried for the Groveland Four beginning with events set in motion in 1949. Though these men now lie in graves, their stories linger in search of justice."

Shortly after Patronis’ action, Attorney General Pam Bondi asked Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen to determine if the Groveland Four could also have their names cleared through the court system.

“A pardon will not exonerate the Groveland Four,” Bondi, who will leave office in January, tweeted. “A pardon is a state action to forgive convicted individuals. In addition to a pardon, if innocent, the Groveland Four should have their names cleared through the courts. I'm asking FDLE to review this case.”

Even U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., took up the case this week, urging Tuesday that the “new Florida cabinet” approve pardons for the Groveland Four and describing what happened to the men as a “grave injustice.”

“Because after 70 years, it is time for Florida to do the right thing for ‘the Groveland Four,’ ” Rubio said.

Earnest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin were the Groveland Four, with author Gilbert King winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for his book about the case, “Devil in the Grove.”

Thomas was killed by a posse after the rape accusation. The three other men were beaten to coerce confessions before they were convicted by an all-white jury.

Greenlee, at 16 was given a life sentence. Shepherd and Irvin, both U.S. Army veterans, were sentenced to death. Shepherd and Irvin were later shot, with Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall claiming the two handcuffed men tried to flee while being transported to a new trial. Shepherd died. Irvin told the FBI he was shot in cold blood.

Gov. Leroy Collins commuted Irvin’s sentence to life in prison. Irvin was paroled in 1968 and died a year later. Greenlee, released from prison in the early 1960s, died in 2012.

Fried issued a statement Wednesday in which she expressed her appreciation for Patronis’ “timely action on this important issue that has been ignored for far too long.”

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