At the height of the Jim Crow era, many black people found themselves at the wrong side of the law even when they did nothing wrong.
This was the case of four black men who were falsely accused of raping a 17-year-old woman and assaulting her husband in 1949.
Now the State of Florida has pardoned the young men, who came to be known as the Groveland Four, Charles Greenlee, Ernest Thomas, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd, nearly 70 years after they were wrongly imprisoned
Governor Ron DeSantis called for a vote on Friday during the state’s first Clemency Board meeting, where the Groveland Four case was set to be up for discussion only and not for a vote. The relatives of the young men as well as the woman who accused them, Norma Padgett, testified before the board.
“I believe in the principles of the Constitution. I believe in getting a fair shake,” DeSantis said. “I don’t think there’s any way that you can look at this case and see justice was carried out.”
“Make no mistake, these men were victims. Seventy years is a long time to wait, but it is never too late to do the right thing. Though these men now lie in their graves, their stories linger in search of justice,” he added.
The case made headlines at the time when the four were identified as suspects after Padgett and her husband Willie reported that they had been attacked by four black boys when their car stalled on July 16, 1949.
Padgett stated that she had been taken away and raped and Willy claimed that he had been assaulted by the young men. Immediately after, Irvin and Shepherd were picked up, taken to a secluded place and beaten up by police officers in an effort to get them to confess to the crime.
Greenlee, who had arrived in Groveland in search of work was arrested at a depot where he was waiting for his friend, Thomas. Just like the other two, he was beaten up until he confessed to the crime. Thomas was killed days later in Madison County by police who claimed that he was armed.
NAACP’s lawyer Thurgood Marshall and Franklin Williams represented the three remaining boys, who reported that they were beaten up by the police. Despite the evidence that showed the young men were tortured and the FBI backing this report, no indictment was returned on the deputies who orchestrated the torture.
An all-white jury sentenced Shepherd and Irvin to death and Greenlee to life imprisonment because he was a minor. Following an appeal by the NAACP, Shepherd and Irvin’s sentencing were overturned and the case taken back to a lower court for a new trial.
However, the two young men were shot by Sheriff McCall on transfer to Lake County Jail. Irvin survived by playing dead but Shepherd succumbed to the three gunshots, which Irvin stated were unprovoked despite the statement by McCall that the two had attacked him.
After recovering from his wounds, Irvin was found guilty of the crime and sentenced to death. He did not serve the sentence as newly-elected governor LeRoy Collins commuted to life imprisonment and pardoned him in 1968. He died a year later.
Greenlee was paroled in 1962. He died in 2012.
It was only in 2017 that the Florida House of Representatives unanimously apologised to the family of the Groveland Four, a year after the Lake County Commission and Groveland Mayor Tim Loucks presented the families with a posthumous apology.
“The memories can’t be erased, the pain they’ve endured can’t be fixed but today we have an opportunity to provide closure to these families in the form of an apology,” Rep. Bobby DuBose, who sponsored the bill that called for their pardon, said at the time.
The pardon has been welcomed by family and friends including Greenlee’s son Charles who said that the move by Florida governor shows how government should work.
“[when you see injustice has been done] You don’t cover it up. You claim it and you do your due diligence to make it right,” he said.
You can listen to his comments below.