Harrowing story of the Groveland Four – innocent black men put on death row & killed over fake rape claim in Deep South
FOUR young black men sentenced to death and murdered over a fake rape claim have been cleared after a campaign for justice by their families.
Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas – known as the Groveland Four – were accused of raping a white teenager in the racist Deep South in 1949.
The brutal manhunt for the accused and the miscarriage of justice came to symbolize the racial injustice of the Jim Crow era.
A judge has now cleared the charges against the men and issued a ruling effectively exonerating them of the crime.
Charles Greenlee’s daughter wept and fell into the arms of those next to her as a judge formally dismissed the charges.
"If you know something is right, stand up for it. Be persistent,” she said.
The four friends were aged 16 to 26 at the time they were accused of raping a woman in the central Florida town of Groveland.
Norma Padgett, who’s now in her 80s, told police she and her husband were driving home from a dance when they were attacked by four young Black men who abducted and raped her at gunpoint.
Thomas was brutally killed by a posse of more than 1000 men that shot him more than 400 times shortly after the rape accusation.
The local sheriff, Willis McCall, shot dead Shepherd and wounded Irvin in 1951 as he drove them to a second trial, claiming they tried to escape.
The U.S Supreme Court had overturned their original convictions, saying no evidence had been presented
But Irvin said McCall and his deputy shot them in cold blood.
Irvin was sentenced to death by an all-white jury but narrowly escaped execution in 1954 and his sentence was commuted to life in prison.
Greenlee was sentenced to life, was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012, while Irvin died in 1969, one year after he was paroled.
The case has been pursued local state attorney Bill Gladson, a Republican.
Gladson and an investigator interviewed the grandson of Jesse Hunter, the now-deceased prosecutor of two of the Groveland Four defendants.
INJUSTICE OF JIM CROW
According to the grandson, Broward Hunter, his grandfather and a judge in the case knew there was no rape.
The grandson suggested to Gladson, based on letters he found in his grandfather’s office in 1971, Willis may have shot Shepherd and Irvin because of the sheriff’s involvement in illegal gambling.
The men’s families said maybe this case will spark a re-examination of other convictions of Black men and women from the Jim Crow era so those falsely convicted can have their names cleared.
“We are blessed. I hope that this is a start because lot of people didn’t get this opportunity,” said Aaron Newson, Thomas’s nephew.
“A lot of families didn’t get this opportunity. Maybe they will.”
Padgett has rarely spoken publicly about the case and she last appeared before the state clemency board in January 2019 to ask them not to pardon the men.
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