The state of Florida is attempting to make amends.
Gov. Ron DeSantis posthumously pardoned Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin, Earnest Thomas and Charles Greenlee Friday (Jan. 11), decades after the court system destroyed their lives
On July 16, 1949, Shepherd, Irvin, Greenlee and Thomas, known as “The Groveland Four,” were convicted of gang raping a 17-year-old married white woman who claimed that she was attacked on the side of a road in Groveland, Fla.
“For seventy years, these four men have had their history wrongly written for crimes they did not commit,” DeSantis said in a statement.
“As I have said before, while that is a long time to wait, it is never too late to do the right thing,” he continued. “I believe the rule of law is society’s sacred bond. When it is trampled, we all suffer. For the Groveland Four, the truth was buried. The Perpetrators celebrated. But justice has cried out from that day until this.”
The accuser, Norma Padgett, and her husband, Willie, claimed that she had been gang raped after their car broke down. There was no evidence to prove that a sexual assault occurred, and prosecutors were accused of manipulating and withholding crucial information in the case.
Irvin and Shepherd, both 22, were friends and World War II veterans. They acknowledged asking the couple if they needed help after spotting them on the side of the road. Greenlee, a 16-year-old newlywed, was “being detained 20 miles away” from the location where the Padgetts claimed the rape occurred. He was at a train station waiting to go job hunting with Thomas when police arrested him. The teen denied that he and Thomas were involved in the alleged rape.
Nonetheless, Irvin, Shepherd and Greenlee were all charged with rape. Thomas, also a newlywed at the time, was “presumed guilty” but fled before police could arrest him. A violent posse of more than 1,000 men went out to search for him. They caught up with Thomas and killed him in a “hail of gunfire” as he slept next to a tree. His death was ruled a justifiable homicide.
The others were arrested and severely beaten by police, subsequently forcing them into false confessions, with the exception of Irvin who maintained his innocence. Another member of the group had his home burned down by an angry mob.
An all-white jury convicted the men of rape and sentenced Irvin and Shepherd to death. Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison because he was a minor.
Thurgood Marshall, then an Executive Director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, appealed the ruling. A retrial was ordered in April of 1951. Seven months later, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot Shepherd and Irvin during a prison transfer. McCall claimed that he gunned them down because they were attempting to escape. Shepherd died instantly.
Irvin survived after being shot in the neck while laying on the ground, handcuffed to Shepherd.
Irvin was refused medical attention because of his race. He was later retried in court, reconvicted and sentenced to death. The sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison. Irvin was paroled in 1969. He was found dead in his car a year after his release.
Greenlee, the last living member of the four, was paroled in 1960. He died in 2012, at age 78.
Norma Padgett, now 86 years old, opposed the men receiving pardons and maintains her story.
The pardons were approved nearly a year after state legislators issued a resolution urging the governor to move forward with the process. Lawmakers also offered a “heartfelt apology” to the families of Greenlee, Irvin, Shepherd and Thomas “for the enduring sorrow caused by the criminal justice system’s failure to protect their basic constitutional rights.”
See more on the case below.