Four young black men known as the “Groveland Four” who were falsely accused of raping a white woman have been pardoned after nearly 70 years by a vote from the Florida Clemency Board on Friday.
Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Earnest Thomas were accused of attacking Willie Padgett and raping his 17-year-old wife Norma in July 1949 in Lake County, Fla.
The couple were on their way home from a dance one night when their car broke down and Irvin and Shepard stopped to offer help, according to The Washington Post. Irvin and Shepard — along with Greenlee and Thomas — then allegedly attacked the couple, the Padgetts told Lake County Police.
Thomas fled the area and was later shot 200 miles away from Lake County. Irvin, Greenlee and Shepherd were arrested hours after the accusation and found guilty by a jury. Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to death, and Greenlee — who was 16 at the time — was sentenced to prison.
Nearly 70 years after the incident occurred, the four men have been pardoned, the Miami Herald reported.
While none of the four men who were falsely accused are still alive, their families celebrated the pardon. The meeting of the Florida Cabinet was only supposed to be a discussion of the Groveland Four but, at the end of the meeting, Gov. Ron DeSantis called for a vote by the clemency board.
A unanimous vote pardoned the four men.
“I believe in the principles of the Constitution. I believe in getting a fair shake,” DeSantis said. “I don’t think there any way that you can look at this case and see justice was carried out.”
After the three men were convicted, Shepherd and Irvin appealed — but Greenlee did not. The United States Supreme court overturned Shepherd and Irvin’s convictions and a retrial was scheduled.
The case took a turn in November 1951 when Sheriff Willis McCall shot both Shepherd and Irvin as he was transporting them to prison. He claimed they attempted to overpower him although they were handcuffed together. Shepherd died from the gunshots, but Irvin survived — and testified how McCall shot them in cold blood.
After he was shot, Irving pretended to be dead and heard McCall say on his radio: “I got rid of them; killed the sons of b—–s,” PBS reported.
A retrial found Irvin guilty once again and his execution was scheduled. His death sentence was changed to a life sentence in prison by Gov. LeRoy Collins in 1954.
Greenlee was paroled in 1962, and Irvin was released from prison in 1968. Irvin moved to Miami and in 1970 returned to Lake County for a visit where he died of a heart attack. Greenlee died in 2012.
Despite the jury’s decision, Padgett, now 86, stood by her accusations on Friday — and spoke publicly for the first time Friday.
“I don’t want them pardoned, no, I do not. And you wouldn’t, either,” Padgett said, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel.
Shepherd’s cousin, Beverly Robinson, called the Padgett family “liars.”
“It never happened, Miss Padgett,” Robinson said, reported by the Miami Herald. “You and your family are liars.”
Robinson told how when she was working as a diversity instructor at Lake-Sumter State College and reading papers from students on when they first encountered racism, she came across a paper from Padgett’s niece that concluded the incident never happened and the family was sworn to secrecy, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
Gilbert King — author of the 2013 Pultizer-winning nonfiction book “Devil in the Grove” — testified in front of the board.
King’s research revealed that evidence from the FBI showed inconsistencies in Padgett’s case — including that at least one man was not near the scene where she alleged she was raped. A medical report did not confirm she was raped, the book revealed.
“Today’s action marks progress & resolution on an undeniable injustice of the past. Although the action can never fully revise this dark chapter, it’s my hope that the families of the Groveland Four can accept this pardon as a sincere attempt to set the record of history straight,” tweeted Nikki Fried, agriculture commissioner and the board’s only Democratic Clemency Board member.