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by | Jan 11, 2019 | Crime, Government, News, Politics | 0 comments

Seventy years ago in Groveland, Fla., a white teenager named Norma Padgett accused four black men of kidnapping and raping her in a car on a dark road.

Two of the men would eventually be shot dead by the segregationist sheriff of Lake County and his angry mob, and the other two wrongfully convicted of crimes on little evidence. The case of the Groveland Four, as they became known, inspired a Pulitzer-winning book and has been considered for decades one of Florida’s most grave injustices and the epitome of failed rule of law in the Jim Crow south.

In 2017, the state of Florida formally apologized for what happened in the summer of 1949.

And on Friday, the state’s clemency board voted to posthumously pardon all four men — Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin.

After hearing testimony from family members of the men and Padgett herself, now in her late 80s, newly-inaugurated Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said this case was a “miscarriage of justice” and that the “only appropriate thing to do is to grant pardons.”

“I hope that this will bring peace to the their families and their communities,” DeSantis said after the formal vote, which took place after his first cabinet meeting as governor.

The families of Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas (or the Groveland Four) sat scattered throughout the room. Some spoke at the podium in front of the Clemency Board.

Samuel Shepherd’s cousin Beverly Robinson, turned to the accuser, Norma Padgett, and called her a liar.

“It never happened, Miss Padgett,” she said. “You and your family are liars.”

Padgett, who sat surrounded by family in the front row, was wheeled to a microphone.

“I’m the victim of that night. I tell you now, that it’s been on my mind for 70 years. I was 17 years old and it’s never left my mind,” she said, her sons standing behind her. “I’m begging y’all not to give the pardons because they did it. If you do, you’re going to be just like them.”

Within days of Padgett’s accusations, Shepherd, Greenlee and Irvin had been jailed and Thomas was dead, shot and killed by an angry mob — led by Sheriff Willis V. McCall — who had chased him 200 miles into the Panhandle. In Groveland, black-owned homes were shot up and burned, sparking chaos so intense the governor eventually sent in the National Guard.

Despite the lack of evidence, a jury quickly convicted the three still alive.

Greenlee, just 16 at the time, was sent to prison for life.

Shepherd and Irvin, friends and Army veterans, were sentenced to death, but the U.S. Supreme Court later overturned their convictions and ordered a retrial. Before that could happen, though, McCall shot them both. Shepherd died at the scene, but Irvin — who played dead — survived, and his sentence was later commuted to life in prison.

Carole Greenlee was in her mother’s womb when her father was accused of raping Padgett. He had been in Lake County that day looking for a job, a way to provide for his young family.

After his conviction, his wife would bring the infant Carole for visits every Sunday, but eventually it became too difficult.

Carole didn’t see her father again until he was paroled in 1962. She was a pre-teen.

Charles Greenlee did not appeal his conviction, according to PBS, and spent 12 years in prison. He died in 2012 at age 78.

Shepherd and Irvin, however, did appeal, and although the Florida Supreme Court initially upheld their convictions, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned them.

They were shot by McCall on their return trip from prison to Lake County, where a new trial awaited them.

In his second trial, Irvin was represented by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, but was once again convicted after a speedy deliberation. They appealed again, but the U.S. Supreme Court denied the case. The governor at the time also rejected a clemency appeal and scheduled Irvin’s execution.

But an emergency stay saved his life, and a newly elected moderate governor commuted Irvin’s sentence to life in prison after commissioning a report on the case.

Irvin was released in 1968 and died two years later, of a heart attack, on a trip back to Lake County for a funeral.

The Groveland Four’s story became the focus of a 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the case, “Devil in the Grove.” The author of the book, Gilbert King, testified in front of the board.

Wade Greenlee, the younger brother of Charles, traveled to Tallahassee from Jacksonville for the hearing. So did Thomas and Carol Greenlee, two of Charles’ children.

“He was clearly convicted by a person who just said he did it. The climate of those times — that’s all they need,” Thomas Greenlee said in front of the board. “He wasn’t there for birthdays. He wasn’t there to help with homework. He just was not there. You put someone into a situation where you not only affect him, but the whole family.”

Carol Greenlee mentioned that when she used to ask her father about the trial, he always said he didn’t even know the other men he was brought into the courtroom with.

“The evidence was in the record,” she said. “He was accused, put in jail and tortured.”

DeSantis, who spoke about the vote at a press conference before the cabinet meeting, called the entire situation a “perversion of justice.”

In 2017, the Florida Legislature unanimously passed a bill asking former Gov. Rick Scott to go ahead and pardon them.

He refused and never answered questions as to why.

“The thing is, when you’re looking at these issues of pardons, you still have to have good justice even if someone wasn’t innocent,” DeSantis said. “To me, I look at how this whole thing went and I think that when the legislature passed the resolution in 2017, they were right — this was a miscarriage of justice.”

Agriculture Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried, told the News Service of Florida Tuesday that she wanted more than just a discussion, and said Friday she was pleased the clemency board came to a vote. Fried is now calling for a proclamation to exonerate all four men.

“An exoneration makes a statement that we actually recognize what had happened and make sure that their names are cleared,” said Fried, the first Democrat on the Cabinet since former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink left office eight years ago.

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