“For 70 years, these four men have had their history wrongly written for crimes they did not commit. As I have said before, while that is a long time to wait, it is never too late to do the right thing,” DeSantis said in a statement on his website.
On July 16, 1949, a 17-year-old white woman named Norma Padgett and her husband, told police four young black men raped and kidnapped her, after their car broke down in Groveland, Florida.
Earnest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irving and Charles Greenlee were arrested. Greenlee was arrested in an unrelated incident, 20 miles away. He stated he did not know the other three men.
Ten days later, Thomas escaped and was killed by a mob of 1,000 men while he slept under a tree. The other three were beaten in jail in an effort to coerce a confession out of them.
An all-white jury convicted the three men. Shepherd and Irving, who were both World War II veterans, were sentenced to the death penalty. Greenlee, because he was a minor at the time of the alleged crime, was sentenced to life in prison.
In 1951, the Supreme Court ordered a retrial. As the sheriff was driving Irving and Shepherd to the court hearing, he pulled over and shot them. Shepherd died, while Irving survived by playing dead.
At his next trial, Irving was represented by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Irving would again be convicted and handed the death penalty. In 1955, Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence to life in prison. In 1968, Irvin was paroled, but was found dead in his car the following year.
Greenlee was paroled and released from prison in 1962. He died in 2012.
The pardon came as a surprise during Friday’s meeting between the Florida State Cabinet and the Florida Board of Executive Clemency — since they were only scheduled to discuss the case.
Families of the men were also present.
“We all know how things were back then,” he said. “All you had to do was be black. The reason we’re here today, is because Irvin didn’t die. God allowed him to live to tell the story,” said Wade Greenlee, Charles Greenlee’s younger brother.
Now 87 years old, Padgett herself also spoke at the meeting.
“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 alongside her sons. “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.”
Instead, DeSantis called for a vote.
“I believe in the principles of the Constitution. I believe in getting a fair shake,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any way that you can look at this case and see justice was carried out,” he said.
The vote was unanimous.