Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas, who became known as the Groveland Four, were wrongly accused of raping a white teenager in Florida. The four received pardons on Friday 70 years later but they are deceased.
After many years of demanding justice, and almost two years after the state House and Senate voted to formally apologize, family members attended the clemency hearing in Tallahassee led by the governor and the state Cabinet. The four were violated during the notorious Jim Crow-era in the U.S.
Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall is widely believed to have railroaded the four in 1949. Norma Padgett, then 17 years old, said she was abducted and raped by four Black men after her car broke down.
Thomas fled after the allegations and was killed by a sheriff’s posse. The other three were beaten and tortured.
An all-white jury sentenced Greenlee, the youngest of the four, to life because he was only 16. Irvin and Shepherd, both Army veterans, were sentenced to death.
In 1951, McCall shot the two men while transporting them to a new trial ordered by the Supreme Court. He killed Shepherd on the spot, and claimed it was self-defense.
In 1962, Greenlee was released from prison. He died in 2012 at age 78. Irvin was released in 1968, and died the following year. Independent investigators have proved they were convicted without any evidence and were innocent of the charge.
McCall’s almost 30-year reign ended in 1972 after he was charged with kicking a Black prisoner to death.
Padgett, now 86 years old, attended the hearing. She did not retract her allegations.
“I am not no liar,” she told Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Cabinet members and attendees.
At one point, Beverly Robinson, a niece of one of the Groveland Four, turned to the woman and her sons and said, “It never happened. You all are liars.”
“That’s enough out of you,” Padgett said.
“I know it’s enough out of me. It’s always enough when you’re telling the truth,” Robinson replied.
Sen. Gary Farmer, who sponsored the 2017 resolution apologizing to the families, said Padgett missed an opportunity to seek forgiveness.
“She’s now here at the end of her life and she had a chance to come clean, to seek forgiveness for herself and to support the justice these four families and these four men deserve,” Farmer told the Associated Press.
“It’s very said that she lost this opportunity and continues to perpetuate this lie. This crime did not happen. The evidence is overwhelming.”
A book about the Groveland Four case, “Devil In The Grove,” won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013.