Four men known as the “Groveland Four” have been exonerated of the false accusation that they raped a white woman in 1949.
Circuit Judge Heidi Davis cleared the four Black men of their accused crime on Monday, after State Attorney Bill Gladson filed a motion to exonerate them last month in what he said was “a complete breakdown of the criminal justice system.”
Judge Davis’ ruling individually dismisses indictments, sets aside judgments and sentences, and corrects the record with newly discovered evidence.
Following the decision, the men’s families were filled with emotion as they sat in court. Many cried, some clapped and others hugged.
Over seven decades ago, a 17-year-old white woman and her husband from rural Groveland, Florida claimed that four Black men ambushed them and raped her when her husband’s car broke down on a country road in 1949.. Four men were quickly indicted: Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin.
Thomas was shot over 400 times by the local posse before he was able to stand trial. Despite scant evidence that the Black men had committed the crime, the others were quickly convicted in the Jim Crow era.
Greenlee, a 16-year-old at the time received a term of life imprisonment. Shepherd and Irvin received death sentences.
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The U.S. Supreme Court overturned their original convictions, saying no evidence had been presented. On the way to their second trial, a local sheriff fatally shot Shepherd and wounded Irvin in 1951. Although the sheriff said that they tried to flee, Irvin claimed that they were killed in cold blood.
Thurgood Marshall Sr. of the NAACP, was Irvin’s lawyer during the second trial. An all-white jury sentenced him to the death penalty again. Irvin escaped death by a narrow margin in 1954. Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins converted his sentence to life without parole in 1968. He died a year later, in 1969.
Greenlee was the youngest member of the quartet and was released in 1962. He died in 2012.
Marshall Jr., the son of the late U.S. Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, said that perhaps more than any other case, the Groveland Four “haunted” his father.
“But he believed better days were ahead,” Marshall Jr. said.
Florida’s former attorney general ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review the case in 2018, and state attorney Gladson began an exhaustive review soon after.
He gleaned through an interview with the prosecutor’s grandson that the prosecutor and judge in the case likely knew there was no rape. Gladson also said that a deputy who served as a primary witness likely fabricated evidence.
Irvin’s trousers were a key evidence piece in the exoneration. Although the accused claimed that they had been stained with semen in their pants, in reality, no crime lab test was performed on them. Gladson filed a motion stating that the pant’s results had not shown any evidence of semen after they were recently examined.
“The evidence strongly suggests that a sheriff, a judge, and prosecutor all but guaranteed guilty verdicts in this case,” his motion to exonerate the four men state. “These officials, disguised as keepers of the peace and masquerading as ministers of justice, disregarded their oaths, and set in motion a series of events that forever destroyed these men, their families, and a community.”
In 2017 the Florida Legislature issued a formal apology to the Florida governor and their families. Ron DeSantis granted pardons to the Groveland Four for 2019. A pardon does not remove guilt.
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Groveland Four will be exonerated of all charges.
Carol Greenlee, Greenlee’s daughter, wept in the courtroom on Monday.
“It’s been a long time coming,” she said, adding that she visited her father in prison and played in the prison courtyard when she was 3 years old.
Families of the victims suggested that this case may prompt a review of all other Jim Crow-era convictions for falsely accusing Black men and women.
The well-known case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was lynched in Mississippi after being accused of offending a white woman, occurred six years after the Groveland Four accusations.
“We are blessed. I hope that this is a start because a lot of people didn’t get this opportunity,” a tearful Aaron Newson, Thomas’ nephew, said. Many families did not get the opportunity. They might. This country needs to come together.”
Contributing: Frank Fernandez, The Daytona Beach News-Journal; Frank Stanfield; Daily Commercial; The Associated Press