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Groveland Four pardoned, 70 years on

Black Florida men falsely accused of rape in ‘miscarriage of justice’

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 would be wrongfully convicted of crimes on little evidence. The Groveland Four, as they became known, inspired a Pulitzer-winning book and have been considered for decades one of Florida’s most grave injustices and a case study on 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 Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis 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.

Within days of Padgett’s accusations, Shepherd, Greenlee and Irvin had been jailed and Thomas was shot and killed by a mob — led by Sheriff Willis V. McCall — who had chased him 300 kilometres into the Panhandle.

Despite the lack of evidence, a jury quickly convicted the three still alive. Greenlee, just16 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.

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.