Groveland Four Posthumously Exonerated 7 Decades After Rape Accusation

In Summary

The Groveland Four have been acquitted of rape charges from 1949, a move seen as a rarity because none of the men are alive and prosecutors are often hesitant or unable to reopen older cases due to a lack of witnesses and credible evidence. 

WARNING: This story contains discussions of rape and murder.

It’s been a long seven decades for the families of Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas, the men who came to be known as the Groveland Four, but they’ve officially been posthumously exonerated, per NBC News

In the summer of 1949, 17-year-old Norma Padgett—a white woman now in her 80s—accused the four young Black men of attacking her husband, then kidnapping and raping her at gunpoint after the couple’s automobile got stuck on the way home from a dance. 

RELATED: Two Black Men Accused of Killing Malcolm X To Be Exonerated 

Thomas was quickly captured and murdered by a mob led by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, but Greenlee, Irvin and Shepherd were arrested and later found guilty by all-white juries. 

Their case became a terrible illustration of Jim Crow-era racial injustice, per NBC News, with author Gilbert King saying it demonstrated how the need to protect white women was used to justify racism and the oppression of Black people’s rights. 

Thurgood Marshall, then the NAACP’s lead counsel, assisted Irvin and Shepherd, both World War II veterans, in winning pleas to have their case retried. McCall shot the men when they were being transported in 1951, alleging they tried to escape. 

RELATED: Black Man Pardoned After 24 Years in Prison for Murder He Did Not Commit 

Shepherd died of his injuries and Irvin was convicted once again, despite the fact that a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent testified prosecutors falsified evidence against the men. He initially received the death penalty, but was later sentenced to life in prison before eventually being paroled with Greenlee in 1962. 

Irvin died the following year in 1963 and Greenlee passed away in 2012. 

Florida governor Ron DeSantis pardoned the Groveland Four of the crime in 2019, but local prosecutor Bill Gladson went a step further, asking a judge to dismiss all charges against the men due to prosecutorial misconduct and evidence falsification. 

“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,” Gladson wrote in his motion. “I have not witnessed a more complete breakdown of the criminal justice system.” 

Padgett has rarely spoken publicly about the case, but in January 2019, she stood before the state clemency board to request the men not be pardoned, saying, “Y’all just don’t know what kind of horror I’ve been through for all these many years. I don’t want them pardoned, no I do not, and you wouldn’t neither,” per NBC News. 

RELATED: Kevin Richardson of the ‘Exonerated 5’ Gets Honorary Degree from SU

If you or someone you know is struggling from trauma triggered by this story, resources are available here.

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