Groveland Four, the black men accused of rape in 1949, could be turned away
In the summer of 1949, 17-year-old Norma Padgett made an accusation that would stir decades of turmoil in Groveland, Florida, a rural town near Orlando: The couple’s car stalled on the way home from a dance with her husband. Padgett told police they were hit by four young black men who attacked their husband and then kidnapped and raped her at gunpoint.
The allegations made by Padgett, who is white and now over 80 years old, sparked a manhunt that sparked an onslaught of violence against black Groveland residents, mobilized the National Guard, and prompted Thurgood Marshall, then senior attorney for the NAACP, to act the Matter of the men who were to be known as the Groveland Four.
While the defendants – Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas – have since died, it took seven decades before the State of Florida officially recognized how they failed by criminal justice. In 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis issued a posthumous pardon.
But on Monday, a Lake County district court judge could go further by dismissing the charges against the men and issuing a ruling that effectively exonerates them of the crime. Such an extraordinary move was started last monthwhen local prosecutor Bill Gladson filed papers to dismiss Thomas and Shepherd’s charges and overturn the verdicts and sentences passed against Greenlee and Irvin.
“My family and I are deeply grateful to Attorney Bill Gladson and his team for their dedicated efforts to review the case and correct the wrongs committed against the Groveland Four more than seven decades ago,” said Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee. who was the youngest of the suspects, then only 16.
Carol Greenlee said in a statement that despite proclamations from the governor and state legislature and a memorial dedicated to the Groveland Four, “full justice depends on action by the judiciary. I hope this motion will lead to this full justice. “
A disturbing example of racial injustice from the Jim Crow era, the Groveland Four preceded the high profile murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager in Mississippi who was lynched by white men in 1955 after being accused of whistling a white man to have wife.
Such incidents show how the desire to protect white women has been used to justify racism and the repression of black people’s rights, said author Gilbert King, whose book Devil in the Grove, which investigated the Groveland Four case, said won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction in 2013.
Gladson’s decision to ask a judge to dismiss the charges against the Groveland Four was based not on whether or not Padgett was lying, but on the prosecution’s wrongdoing and the production of evidence at the time.
Following the Padgett allegations, a mob led by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall killed Thomas. Meanwhile, Greenlee, Irvin and Shepherd were arrested and later sentenced by all-white juries.
Marshall, who years later became the first black Supreme Court Justice, had helped Irvin and Shepherd win appeals so their case could be retried. In 1951, while Irvin and Shepherd were being transported, McCall shot dead the men, claiming they tried to escape. Shepherd, a World War II veteran, died, but Irvin survived and was convicted despite an FBI agent testifying that prosecutors produced evidence against the men.
Irvin, also a World War II veteran, received the death penalty. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, and he was finally paroled in 1968. He died the following year.
Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012.
Padgett has rarely spoken publicly about the case, and her family has not returned a message for comment. She last appeared before the state pardon board in January 2019, asking her not to pardon the men.
“You just don’t know what horror I’ve been through all these years,” she told the board at the time. “I don’t want them to be pardoned, no, I don’t, and neither would you.”
As Part of his investigationGladson spoke to a grandson of the late prosecutor, who said his grandfather and a judge believed there was no rape. Gladson also had Irvin’s pants tested in a crime lab, and the results showed no evidence of semen, though jurors at his trial were led to believe it existed.
“Officials disguised as peace keepers and attorneys-at-law disobeyed their oaths and started a series of events that forever destroyed these men, their families and a community,” Gladson wrote in his motion. “I have not seen a major breakdown in the criminal justice system.”
If the Groveland Four case is dismissed it would be a rarity, especially if none of the accused are still alive and prosecutors are generally reluctant or unable to revisit older cases because witnesses are no longer alive or documents and evidence are destroyed or miss.
Other states attempted this month to recognize individuals arrested for crimes in such historic cases. A Louisiana state body unanimously granted a posthumous pardon to Homer Plessy, a Creole who refused to leave a white-only train in the 1890s, resulting in the Supreme Court ruling “Separate But Equal.” In New York, two men who had spent decades in prison despite pleading innocence in the 1965 assassination of civil rights icon Malcolm X were officially repealed on Thursday. Only one of the two men is still alive.
A resumption of civil rights-era cases – and a reckoning with the past – are essential, King said.
“Sometimes it gives the judicial system more integrity today by going back in time and correcting a gross injustice,” he said.