Just three days after they are sworn into office, new Gov. Ron DeSantis and members of the Florida Cabinet are expected to take up the “Groveland Four” case of four African-American men accused in 1949 of raping a white woman in Lake County.
DeSantis, new Attorney General Ashley Moody, new Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and returning Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis are scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Friday at the Capitol and then will hold a clemency board meeting to discuss the Groveland Four case, according to an agenda posted online.
The discussion will follow calls to pardon the Groveland Four —- and DeSantis’ statement last month that he wanted to make the issue a “priority.”
“Seventy years is a long time," DeSantis said in the Dec. 20 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."
DeSantis, Moody, Fried and Patronis will be formally sworn into office Tuesday after winning elections Nov. 6. The agenda for Friday’s meeting does not provide details of what will be discussed about the Groveland Four case, but the idea of pardons has gained momentum since the November elections.
In 2017, the Legislature approved a resolution apologizing to the Groveland Four and calling for pardons. The resolution said the men were “victims of gross injustices and that their abhorrent treatment by the criminal justice system is a shameful chapter in this state's history.”
Under state law, the governor and Cabinet serve as the clemency board.
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.
In addition to discussing the Groveland Four case, DeSantis and the Cabinet on Friday are also expected to take up DeSantis’ recommendations of state Rep. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, to serve as executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs and Jim Zingale to serve as executive director of the Florida Department of Revenue. Filling the jobs is subject to Cabinet approval.
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