Groveland Four exonerated after 72 years

Black friends dubbed the ‘Groveland Four’ are posthumously EXONERATED 72 years after white teen claimed they’d raped her at gunpoint, triggering wave of racist violence that saw mob murder one of the accused

  • A group of black men known as the ‘Groveland Four’ were exonerated in a Florida courtroom on Monday after they were wrongly accused of rape in 1949
  • Norma Padgett, who was 17 at the time, had accused Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas of abducting and raping her
  • Padgett had sparked a manhunt throughout the small town to look for the men which also sparked racist violence against Groveland’s black residents
  • The manhunt resulted in a mob kill Thomas by shooting him 400 Times. Shepherd was shot and killed by cops two years later 
  • The four men, who are now deceased, were previously pardoned by the Florida Clemency Board, which was led by Governor Ron DeSantis, in 2019
  • The case was reviewed again by State Attorney Bill Gladson who pursued evidence to prove that the four men were not formally guilty
  • Family members of the wrongly accused men had attended the hearing and were relieved to have settled the 72-year long case 

A group of four black men known as the ‘Groveland Four’ were posthumously exonerated in a Florida courtroom after they were wrongly accused of raping a 17-year-old girl at gunpoint in 1949. 

The four men –  Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas – who ranged in age from 16 to 26 – had been accused by Norma Padgett in 1949 and sparked a manhunt throughout the small town of Groveland, a town 30 miles west of Orlando.

Black residents suffered racist violence, with a mob hunting down Thomas and killing him by shooting him 400 times. Shepherd was shot dead by cops two years later while being driven to the rape trial.  

But the now 72-year-old case has finally been settled with all four men after Administrative Judge Heidi Davis dismissed the indictments of Thomas and Shepherd, both of whom were shot dead in the wake of the allegations, and setting aside the convictions of Greenlee and Irvin. 

The members of the Groveland Four were previously pardoned by the Florida Clemency Board, which was led by Governor Ron DeSantis, in 2019 but were not formally exonerated.

The men’s families were overjoyed at the ruling of the case as they hope it will lead to the reexamination of wrongly accused black men and women from the same era.

A group of four black men known as the ‘Groveland Four’ which included Walter Irvin (left), Samuel Shepherd (center), Charles Greenlee (right) and Ernest Thomas (not pictured) were exonerated on Monday after they were wrongly accused of raping a 17-year-old girl in 1949

Norma Padgett, who was 17 at the time, had claimed the four men had abducted and raped her at gunpoint while she was on the way home from a dance with her husband in Groveland, Florida

Family members of the four men attended the hearing where the case had been dismissed by Administrative Judge Heidi Davis

The case for the men was formerly taken by the National Guard as well as lawyer and civil rights activist Thurgood Marshall following Padgett’s accusations. 

Padgett had claimed the men had abducted and raped her at gunpoint while she was driving home with her husband from a dance.

The accusations had sparked a manhunt and a wave of racist violence against other black residents in the town.

Thomas was the first from the group to be killed after a mob had shot him 400 times after the accusations had been made.

Shepherd was killed in 1951 by local sheriff Willis McCall while he was driving him and Irvin to them to their second trial.

The US Supreme Court had overturned the men’s convictions as not enough evidence had been presented.

Irvin, who was in the car with Shepherd, was also shot by McCall but was only injured. 

McCall had claimed that both men had attempted to escape but Irvin claimed that they had been shot by the sheriff and his deputy in cold blood. 

Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall had fatally shot Shepherd and injured Irvin after he claimed they tried to escape before their second hearing 

Shepherd (left) and Irvin (right) lie on the roadside near Umatilla, Florida after they were shot by McCall 

Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court, had helped with the Groveland Four case

At Irvin’s second trial, he had been sentenced to death after being found guilty on the charges of rape. He later escaped the penalty and was then sentenced to life on parole. 

Marshall represented Irvin in the second trial in front of an all-white jury before he was convicted of the judges and sentenced to death.

However, Irvin escaped execution and had his sentence reduced by then Governor LeRoy Collins to life on parole. He later died in 1969.

Greenlee was also sentenced to life on parole in 1962. He died in 2012. 

The Florida Legislature in 2017 formally apologized to the men’s families.  

In 2018, then-Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi directed the state Department of Law Enforcement to review the case. Earlier this year, the agency referred its findings to State Attorney Bill Gladson for his review.

Gladson and an investigator interviewed the grandson of Jesse Hunter, the now-deceased prosecutor of two of the Groveland Four defendants. 

According to the grandson, Broward Hunter, his grandfather and a judge in the case knew there was no rape.

The grandson also suggested to Gladson, based on letters he found in his grandfather’s office in 1971, that Willis may have shot Shepherd and Irvin because of the sheriff’s involvement in an illegal gambling operation. 

Norma Padgett had attended the 2019 board meeting where she still claimed that she had been raped and abducted by the Groveland Four boys

Shepherd was believed to be involved with the gambling operation too, and Willis might have seen a rape case as ‘a way to get some people that were on his s— list,’ Hunter told the prosecutor and investigator.  

Gladson also said that James Yates, a deputy who served as a primary witness, likely fabricated evidence, including shoe casts.

The prosecutor also had Irvin’s pants sent to a crime lab in September to test for semen, something that was never done at Irvin’s trial, even though jurors were given the impression that the pants were stained. The results showed no evidence of semen, the motion said.

‘The significance of this finding cannot be overstated,’ Gladson said in his motion.

Padgett, who is now 89, had attended the 2019 board meeting where she still claims that she had been abducted and raped by the four men.

‘Y’all just don’t know what kind of horror I’ve been through for all these many years,’ she had told the board.

‘I don’t want them pardoned, no I do not, and you wouldn’t neither.’

Despite being outspoken about the case, she has not commented on the recent outcome.  

In addition to the men’s families, Thurgood Marshall Jr. had also attended the hearing.

Marshall claimed that his father had been ‘haunted’ by the trial ‘but he believed better days were ahead.’

The case was reviewed again by State Attorney Bill Gladson who pursued evidence to prove that the four men were not formally guilty

Greenlee’s daughter Carol speaks at a press conference after her father was exonerated

Eddie Irvin, the nephew of Walter, also spoke at the conference

He attended the hearing with Gilbert King, the author of the 2012 book Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America which won him a Pulitzer Prize. 

King said having the men exonerated in the same building where the trials were held was ‘of significant importance because upstairs there was a courtroom where 72 years ago (an) abomination of justice took place.’ He praised Gladson for pursuing justice.

‘He could have easily kicked this case down the road and let someone else deal with it,’ King said. 

‘Even when it got frustrating and he felt there was no path toward this day, he dug in harder.’

‘We followed the evidence to see where it led us and it led us to this moment,’ Gladson said after the hearing.   

The men’s families also spoke out about the outcome of the trial as justice had finally been served after seven decades.

‘We are blessed. I hope that this is a start because lot of people didn’t get this opportunity,’ Thomas’s nephew Aaron Newsom said, breaking into tears as he spoke.

‘A lot of families didn’t get this opportunity. Maybe they will. This country needs to come together.’  

Carol Greenlee, Charles’s daughter, was emotionally relieved after hearing that her father’s charges had finally be dismissed. 

‘If you know something is right, stand up for it,’ she told NBC. ‘Be persistent.’  

A monument of the Groveland Four was erected in February 2020 on the lawn of the Lake County Courthouse featuring a bronzed photograph of the men.         

Vivian Shepherd, niece of Sam Shepherd (left), Gerald Threat, nephew of Walter Irvin (center), and Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee (right) at the 2020 unveiling of the Groveland Four memorial 

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