Florida’s ‘Groveland Four’ exonerated more than 70 years after being accused of raping White girl

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Florida’s ‘Groveland Four’ exonerated more than 70 years after being accused of raping White girl

A Florida judge on Monday exonerated four Black men who were wrongly accused of raping a teenage White girl more than seven decades ago in what is considered one of the greatest miscarriages of justice of the state’s Jim Crow-era history. 

The ruling in Lake County followed prosecutors’ motion to vacate the convictions against Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin and charges against Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd – known as the “Groveland Four.” None of the men are alive today. 

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Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee, said she remembers visiting her father in prison as a young child. 

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The Groveland Four: Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas. The four were exonerated Monday after being wrongly accused and convicted of raping a white woman more than seven decades ago in what is considered one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Jim Crow-era Florida.
(KTTV)

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“I would not hate, but I will love and embrace all of those who did not know at the time that my father was a caring and loving and compassionate person that did not rape anybody,” she said during a news conference following the hearing at the same courthouse where the original trials were held. 

The men ranged in age from 16 to 26 at the time they were accused of assaulting a man and raping 17-year-old Norma Padgett in Groveland, 30 miles west of Orlando, in 1949. 

Thomas was killed by a posse when he was shot more than 400 times. Local Sheriff Willis McCall killed Shepherd and wounded Irvin in 1951 as both men were being transported to a new trial ordered by the Supreme Court. He claimed the men were trying to escape. 

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Irvin was represented by late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall Sr., then with the NAACP, at his second trial, but an all-White jury convicted him and he was sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life in prison. 

He died in 1969, one year after being paroled. Greenlee was also sentenced to life and paroled in 1962. He died in 2012. 

“We followed the evidence to see where it led us and it led us to this moment,” said State Attorney Bill Gladson. “For 72 years the families have been living with this and traveling with this journey waiting for today.”

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Gladson, a Republican, moved last month to have the men officially exonerated.

Aaron Newson, Ernst Thomas’ nephew, fought off tears as he spoke about the case.

“A lot of families did not get this opportunity, maybe they will. Maybe this is the start of something good. I hope so. This country needs to come together,” he said. 

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Relatives of the Groveland Four, from left, Vivian Shepherd, niece of Sam Shepherd, Gerald Threat, nephew of Walter Irvin; Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee, gather at the just-unveiled monument in front of the Old Lake County courthouse in Tavares, Fla., Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

Relatives of the Groveland Four, from left, Vivian Shepherd, niece of Sam Shepherd, Gerald Threat, nephew of Walter Irvin; Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee, gather at the just-unveiled monument in front of the Old Lake County courthouse in Tavares, Fla., Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

Gilbert King, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America,” shed new light on the case, attended the hearing as well as Thurgood Marshall Jr.

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Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida’s three-member Cabinet granted posthumous pardons to the men in 2019 and the state Legislature in 2017 apologized to their families. In 2018, then Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi directed state authorities to review the case. 

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Source: Al-Rai

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