It’s been a busy month for those in charge of writing — and rewriting — America’s history of civil rights abuses. Last week we reported on the case of Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam, two men wrongfully charged with assassinating Malcolm X in 1965 who have finally had their records cleared more than 50 years later.
Now comes news of the overturning of another historic case involving Black men wrongly accused of a crime they didn’t commit.
Terry Spencer of the Associated Press reported that on Monday, Nov. 22, a Florida judge “officially exonerated four young African American men of the false accusation that they raped a white woman seven decades ago, making partial and belated amends for one of the greatest miscarriages of justice of Florida’s Jim Crow era.”
According to Spencer, “at the request of the local prosecutor, Administrative Judge Heidi Davis dismissed the indictments of Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd, who were fatally shot by law enforcement, and set aside the convictions and sentences of Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin. The men known as the Groveland Four, who ranged from 16 to 26 at the time, were accused of raping a woman in the central Florida town of Groveland in 1949.”
In a statement, local state attorney Bill Gladson said, “we followed the evidence to see where it led us, and it led us to this moment.”
The hearing to clear the records of the four men fittingly took place in the same Lake County courthouse where their original trials were held. Families of the now-deceased men celebrated the development. They also said they hoped the case would inspire similar reexamination of other convictions of Black men and women wrongly convicted during the Jim Crow era.
“We are blessed,” said Aaron Newson, Thomas’ nephew. “I hope that this is a start because a lot of people didn’t get this opportunity. A lot of families didn’t get this opportunity. Maybe they will. This country needs to come together.”
“Thomas was killed by a posse that shot him more than 400 times shortly after the rape accusation. The local sheriff, Willis McCall, fatally shot Shepherd and wounded Irvin in 1951 as he drove them to a second trial after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their original convictions, saying no evidence had been presented,” Spencer reported. “The sheriff claimed the men tried to escape, but Irvin said McCall and his deputy shot them in cold blood.”
Thurgood Marshall Sr., who was working with the NAACP at the time, served as legal counsel for Irvin during his second trial. An all-white jury convicted the man and sentenced him to death, but in 1954 Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence to life with parole instead.
The process to clear the names of the Groveland Four began in 2017 when the Florida Legislature approved a formal apology from the state to the men’s families. In 2019, the men were granted posthumous pardons for the crime they were framed for and didn’t commit. The Florida State Department of Law Enforcement also began an official review of the case at that time. The findings from that review finally brought about exoneration for Thomas, Shepherd, Greenlee and Irvin.
The story of the Groveland Four was the subject of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. Author Gilbert King attended the hearing to clear the men’s names with Thurgood Marshall Jr., the son of the late U.S. Supreme Court justice.
King said he was happy to witness in-person the correction of the “abomination of justice” that took place 72 years earlier. Marshall Jr. added that of all the cases his father had heard during his career, it was the story of the Groveland Four that “haunted” him the most.
Still, Marshall Jr. said his father remained hopeful for the future, saying “[Marshall Sr.] believed better days were ahead.”