Family Rejoices as 'Groveland Four' Exonerated 72 Years After Wrongly Charged With Rape

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In 2017, the state of Florida formally apologized to the families of four black men who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in 1949.

The Florida men known as the “Groveland Four” were exonerated Monday, 72 years after being wrongly convicted for the rape of a 17-year-old girl, The New York Times reported.

The exoneration comes posthumously for Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas, aka “Groveland Four.” The four men died before state officials could re-examine the case, which a prosecutor said lacked due process and would not be tried today, The New York Times reported.

They were cleared by Circuit Court Judge Heidi Davis in Lake County, Florida, People reported. Judge Davis dismissed the indictments of Thomas and Shepherd, while she vacated Greenlee and Irvin's convictions, CNN reported.

The families of the accused celebrated the clearing of their loved ones’ names in a press conference.

"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. I stand here today to say thank you," Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee, said.

The saga of the gross injustice brought upon the four men happened in 1949 when they were accused of raping Norma Padgett in Groveland, Florida, about 30 miles west of Orlando, CNN reported.

At the time, Padgett, now in her 80s, said she was abducted and raped by four Black men when she and her husband experienced car trouble in the town.  

Padgett’s claims set off a manhunt for the men and an onslaught of violence against Black residents of Groveland, NBC News reported. It got so bad that the National Guard was called in and Thurgood Marshall, then a lead attorney for the NAACP, took up the cause, NBC News reported.

Marshall was able to bring their case to the Supreme Court in 1951 when a retrial was ordered due to lack of evidence and no Black jurors. The court overturned their convictions and remanded the case to the lower court for a new trial.

As the trials proceeded, despite doubts of Padgett's testimony, the Jim Crow-era Florida jury convicted the men without evidence, according to CNN.

However, the story of the men gets more grim as Thomas was gunned down by a mob of over 1,000 men and shot hundreds of times after Padgett's accusations.

In 1951, Sheriff Willis McCall shot and killed Shepherd as he and Irvin were being brought to their second trial. Irvin was also shot by the sheriff and was wounded. The sheriff claimed self-defense because he said they were running away and trying to escape, according to reports.

Irvin died in 1969, a year after being granted parole. Greenlee died in 2012.

"For 72 years the families have been living with this and traveling with this journey waiting for today," Bill Gladson, the state attorney, said in a press conference. "Once we found that evidence, and it revealed what it revealed, that resulted in the motion that you saw today.”

In 2019, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis pardoned the four men posthumously.

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