A Florida judge has acquitted the Groveland Four, 70 years after he was falsely accused of rape

A Florida judge has acquitted the Groveland Four, 70 years after he was falsely accused of rape


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  • Image via Florida Memory Project
  • Sheriff Willis McCall and an unidentified man with Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvine at the Lake County Jail, 1949

A Central Florida judge on Monday acquitted black men known as the “Groveland Four” who were charged with sexually assaulting a white woman in one of the most high-profile cases of the state’s Jim Crow era.

Lake County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Heidi Davis on Monday approved a motion by Attorney General William Gladson to restore the constitutional right to a “presumption of innocence” of Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenley and Walter Irvine.

Monday’s action by Davis overturned Greenlee and Irvine’s convictions and dismissed the indictments against Thomas and Sheppard.

Greenley’s daughter, Carol, wept with family members during a news conference in the courtroom after the judge granted Gladson’s request.

“I will not let Florida write my story. I will not let Florida decide who I will be and what I will be, nor shall I let injustice define me,” Greenlee said. I will not hate, but I will love and embrace everyone who did not know at the time when my father was a kind, loving and merciful person who did not rape anyone.”

Gladson, whose constituency includes Lake County, wrote in the lawsuit filed last month that “even an occasional review of the records” indicates the men were denied due process in the sexual assault allegations against Norma Padgett Upshaw.

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Sheriff Willis McCall and an unidentified man with Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvine at the Lake County Jail, 1949

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“The evidence strongly indicates that the sheriff, the judge, and the attorney general all secured guilty verdicts in this case,” Gladson wrote. “Disguised as peacekeepers and disguised as ministers of justice, these officials disregarded their oath, and embarked on a chain of events that forever destroyed these men, their families, and a community…the complete collapse of the criminal justice system.”

Two of the four men were represented on the U.S. Supreme Court by future Judge Thurgood Marshall, who represented his son Thurgood Marshall Jr. in Lake County for Monday’s hearing.

“There are so many people, countless people we need to remember, who have suffered similar injustices and similar fates, whose names and faces have been lost to history,” Marshall told reporters after the session. “Probably more than any other case my father has worked on, this case has haunted him for many years. But he believed our better days were coming.”

Florida House Minority Leader Bobby Dubois of Fort Lauderdale has called on the Florida legislature to make up for the men’s families.

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DuBose, who also attended Monday’s court hearing, said the two men’s posthumous acquittal was an attempt to “repair a terrible stain in our state’s history.”

“This proposal is long overdue and necessary in addition to the compensation funds that must be distributed to the families of the victims as a result of this racially motivated crime,” Dubose said in a prepared statement. “We as legislators must continue to identify and correct racial injustice in our criminal justice system to prevent another Groveland Four case.”

The investigation was referred to Gladson by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which was directed in December 2018 by former Attorney General Pam Bundy to review a 1949 case in which the four were accused of raping a 17-year-old woman in Lake. boycott.

In January 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis and Florida Cabinet — Attorney General Ashley Moody, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — pardoned the four men.

“At long last! Exoneration for #GrovelandFour, vindicating the names of the men falsely accused and answering the prayers of the families I have been humbled to fight alongside them in their quest for truth and justice,” Fred tweeted on Monday.

Padgett Upshaw, who did not attend Monday’s hearing, has maintained that the four men were involved in the assault on her.

“I beg you not to give them a pardon because they did,” Padgett Upshaw told the committee, before DeSantis and Cabinet in January 2019.

Thomas was murdered by a person in Madison County after being accused of rape. The other three men were beaten to extract confessions before being convicted by a white jury.

Greenlee, 16, was sentenced to life in prison. Shepherd and Irvine, both US Army veterans, were sentenced to death. Shepherd and Irvine were subsequently shot, with Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall claiming that the two handcuffed men had attempted to escape while being taken to a new trial ordered by the US Supreme Court due to adverse pre-trial publicity. Shepherd died, preventing a retrial. Irvine survived but was retried and convicted.

Then- Gov. Leroy Collins commuted Irvine’s sentence to life imprisonment. Irvine was paroled in 1968 and died a year later. Greenlee, who was released from prison in the early 1960s, died in 2012.

The case received renewed attention after a 2013 book about the accident – “Devil in the Grove” by Gilbert King – won a Pulitzer Prize.


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