Photo via Florida Memory Project
Sheriff Willis McCall and an unidentified man with Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin in the Lake County Jail, 1949
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, want exoneration for the “Groveland Four,” expanding on pardons granted in January by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state Cabinet in a prominent case from Florida’s Jim Crow era.
Fried and Thompson plan to hold a news conference Tuesday in the Capitol to call for exoneration of the four now-deceased black men – Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin – accused in 1949 of raping a white woman in Lake County.
“Family members of the Groveland Four have waited roughly 70 years for justice in this case and Floridians and others in the country need to see that elected leaders are committed to healing and reconciliation,” Thompson said in a prepared statement. “Exoneration of the Groveland Four will bring us closer to righting the wrong done to these men.”
The pardons granted by DeSantis, Fried, Attorney General Ashley Moody and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis essentially excused the four men from the crime. An exoneration would be an official statement that the four men didn’t do the crime.
Thomas was killed by a posse in Madison County after the rape accusation. Shepherd, Greenlee and Irvin 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 saying the two handcuffed men tried to flee while being transported to a new trial that had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court. Shepherd died. Irvin survived and told the FBI he was shot in cold blood.
Then-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.
The pardons were supported by current Lake County officials. Norma Padgett Upshaw, who made the rape accusations in July 1949, argued against the pardons, telling DeSantis and the Cabinet in January that the Groveland Four were the men involved.
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