Four black men are now officially free nearly 70 years after they were wrongly accused of raping a 17-year-old white girl.
In 1949, Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas were accused of sexually assaulting Norma Padgett in Groveland, Florida, about 30 miles west of Orlando. The group came to be called the “Groveland Four.”
There were doubts about Padgett’s testimony from the onset, but in the era of Jim Crow, a jury convicted the men without evidence of a crime.
Gov. Ron DeSantis issued full posthumous pardons to the men on Friday.
“For seventy years, these four men have had their history wrongly written for crimes they did not commit. As I have said before, while that is a long time to wait, it is never too late to do the right thing,” DeSantis said in a statement. “I believe the rule of law is society’s sacred bond. When it is trampled, we all suffer. For the Groveland Four, the truth was buried. The Perpetrators celebrated. But justice has cried out from that day until this.”
The pardons were unanimously approved by the Executive Clemency Board, a release from the new governor’s office says.
The July night incident
Padgett claimed that on the night of July 16, 1949, her car broke down in Groveland. She said the four men stopped and raped her.
The men were arrested. Three of them were tortured until police were able to elicit a confession from two of them.
Thomas, who managed to escape custody, was killed after a manhunt.
Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison.
Shepherd and Irvin received the death penalty. While being transported from county jail for a retrial, the sheriff shot them both and claimed self-defense.
Shepherd died at the scene and Irvin survived by playing dead. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison.
‘The memories can’t be erased’
The Florida House issued a posthumous apology to the Groveland Four in April 2017.
“As a state, we’re truly sorry,” Rep. Chris Sprowls said to the men’s families, after lawmakers unanimously voted to exonerate them.
“The memories can’t be erased, the pain they’ve endured can’t be fixed but today we have an opportunity to provide closure to these families in the form of an apology,” Rep. Bobby DuBose, who sponsored the bill that called for their pardon.