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
A Central Florida judge on Monday exonerated Black men known as the “Groveland Four” who were accused of sexually assaulting a white woman in one of the most-notorious cases from the state's Jim Crow era.
Lake County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Heidi Davis on Monday granted a motion filed by State Attorney William Gladson to restore the constitutional right to the “presumption of innocence” of Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin.
Davis' action Monday vacated the convictions of Greenlee and Irvin and dismissed the indictments against Thomas and Shepherd.
Greenlee’s daughter, Carol, wept with family members during a press conference at the courthouse after the judge granted Gladson's motion.
“I would not let Florida write my story. I would not let Florida decide who I was going to be and what I was going to be, and not let injustice define me," Greenlee said. “I would not hate, but I will love and embrace all of those who did not know at the time that my father was a caring and loving and compassionate person that did not rape anybody.”
Gladson, whose circuit includes Lake County, wrote in the motion filed last month that “even a casual review of the records” indicates the men were deprived of fundamental due process in the allegations of sexually assaulting Norma Padgett Upshaw.
“The evidence strongly suggests that a sheriff, a judge, and prosecutor all but guaranteed guilty verdicts in this case,” Gladson wrote. “These officials, disguised as keepers of the peace and masquerading as ministers of justice, disregarded their oaths, and set in motion a series of events that forever destroyed these men, their families, and a community ... I have not witnessed a more complete breakdown of the criminal justice system.”
Two of the four men were represented at the U.S. Supreme Court by future Justice Thurgood Marshall, whose son Thurgood Marshall Jr. appeared in Lake County for Monday’s hearing.
“There are so many people, countless people that we need to remember, who suffered similar injustice and similar fates, whose names and faces have been lost to history,” Marshall told reporters after the hearing. “Perhaps more than any other case my father worked on, this one has haunted him for many, many years. But he believed that our better days were ahead.”
Florida House Minority Leader Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale, called for the Florida Legislature to compensate the men's families.
DuBose, who also attended Monday’s court proceeding, said the men’s posthumous exoneration is an attempt “to fix a terrible stain in our state’s history.”
“This motion is long overdue and is necessary on top of compensation funds that should be distributed to the victims' families as a result of this racially motivated crime,” DuBose said in a prepared statement. “We as legislators must continue to identify and correct racial injustices in our criminal justice system to prevent another Groveland Four case.”
The investigation was referred to Gladson by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which in December 2018 was directed by former Attorney General Pam Bondi to review the 1949 case in which the four were charged with the rape of a 17-year-old woman in Lake County.
In January 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet —- Attorney General Ashley Moody, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis —- pardoned the four men.
“At long last! Exoneration for the #GrovelandFour, clearing the names of the falsely-accused men and answering the prayers of the families that I was humbled to fight alongside in their quest for the truth and justice,” Fried tweeted on Monday.
Padgett Upshaw, who did not attend Monday’s hearing, has remained adamant that the four men were the ones involved in her assault.
Appearing before DeSantis and the Cabinet in January 2019, Padgett Upshaw told the panel, “I’m begging you not to give them pardons because they done it.”
Thomas was killed by a posse in Madison County 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 that had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court due to adverse pretrial publicity. Shepherd died, preventing a retrial. Irvin survived but was retried and convicted.
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 case gained renewed attention after a 2013 book about the incident —- "Devil in the Grove
," by Gilbert King —- was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
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