Four African American men falsely accused in 1949 of raping a white woman in Lake County were unanimously pardoned Friday by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the executive clemency board.
"Justice was miscarried for the Groveland Four beginning with events set in motion in 1949," DeSantis previously said about the case. "Though these men now lie in graves, their stories linger in search of justice."
Seventy years ago, 17-year-old Norma Padgett accused Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas of sexually assaulting her in Groveland. Medical records kept by the FBI and released decades later by author Gilbert King in his book Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America
would show the woman was not assaulted.
But 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 order of Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, a known white supremacist.
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, McCall 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.
Despite Florida lawmakers urging Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet to grant the Groveland Four posthumous pardons, Scott ignored this request and left office without granting the men a pardon.
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