Florida Pardons the Groveland Four, 70 Years After Jim Crow-Era Rape Case
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Four black men who were accused of raping a white woman in Florida in 1949 were pardoned on Friday by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who called their case a “miscarriage of justice.”
The so-called Groveland Four — Charles Greenlee, Ernest Thomas, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd — were accused of the rape in 1949 near the city of Groveland in Lake County, Fla. Mr. Thomas was killed shortly thereafter, and the other three were taken into custody, beaten, and eventually convicted. Mr. Shepherd was later shot and killed by the county sheriff.
Mr. Greenlee and Mr. Irvin were each imprisoned for more than a decade and released on parole. Both have since died, but for years, their families have insisted on their innocence and fought for their pardons.
“I wanted two things to happen,” said Carol Greenlee, Mr. Greenlee’s daughter, in an interview on Friday. “I wanted the world to know the truth, and I wanted my daddy’s name cleared.”
State officials voted in favor of the pardon at a meeting with Mr. DeSantis on Friday morning in Tallahassee. Ms. Greenlee, 69, and several relatives of the Groveland Four gave testimonies at the meeting. So did Norma Padgett, the woman who said she was raped by the young men in 1949, when she was 17.
She said that her accusations back then were true. “I’m begging y’all not to give them pardon,” she said.
But Mr. DeSantis appeared convinced that the men had been wrongly convicted. “I don’t know that there’s any way you can look at this case and think that those ideals of justice were satisfied,” Mr. DeSantis said. “Indeed, they were perverted, time and time again.”
The Jim Crow-era case attracted widespread attention in 1949. Shortly after the rape was reported, mobs of white residents set fire to homes and property belonging to black families in the Groveland area.
Ms. Padgett and her husband had said that they were on the side of the road with a broken-down car when the four men attacked him and raped her.
Three of the men were arrested that night, but Mr. Thomas ran. He was eventually tracked down by a posse of men in the woods and killed in what has been described as a hail of gunfire.
N.A.A.C.P. lawyers, including Franklin Williams and Thurgood Marshall, took an active role in the men’s defense. They argued that Mr. Greenlee and Mr. Thomas were nowhere near the scene of the alleged crime, that beatings had led to forced confessions, and that important pieces of evidence, including a medical examination of Ms. Padgett, were never presented in court.
But an all-white jury sentenced Mr. Irvin and Mr. Shepherd to death, and Mr. Greenlee to life in prison.
Mr. Irvin and Mr. Shepherd appealed to the Supreme Court, and their convictions were unanimously overturned in 1951. But shortly thereafter, the sheriff of Lake County, Willis V. McCall, was driving the two men to a court appearance when he pulled over and shot them both. He said that he did it in self-defense.
Mr. Shepherd died. Mr. Irvin survived. But at his retrial, another all-white jury sentenced him to death, again. That sentence was later commuted to life in prison. Mr. Greenlee and Mr. Irvin were each paroled more than 50 years ago, but Mr. Irvin died a year after his release.
Mr. Greenlee did not talk about the case very much, according to his daughter — in part because he barely knew what had happened, having suddenly been arrested alongside two men he had never met before.
She said she learned more when a book about the case, “Legal Lynching: The Sad Saga of the Groveland Four,” by Gary Corsair, was published in 2004. Mr. Greenlee died in 2012, the same year that another book about the case, “Devil in the Grove,” by Gilbert King, was published. It would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
The Orlando Sentinel, which reported the case when it was The Orlando Morning Sentinel, apologized for its coverage this week.
The paper said in an editorial on Thursday that it had “inflamed the public” by running a cartoon showing electric chairs, effectively suggesting the death penalty just as the grand jury was convening; and that it had portrayed Sheriff McCall too favorably, among other things.
“We’re sorry that our coverage of the event and its aftermath lent credibility to the cover-up and the official, racist narrative,” the editorial said.
In 2017, the state of Florida formally apologized to the families of the Groveland Four. That helped to pave the way for Friday’s pardon under Mr. DeSantis, who was inaugurated earlier this week.
Ms. Greenlee said that she was feeling overwhelmed and happy with the decision. “It takes a load off of you,” she said. “It takes away the guilt of the past.”