On Monday, a Florida judge righted a historical wrong.
It began with an accusation of rape 72 years ago in the small town of Groveland, Florida. On July 16, 1949, 17-year-old Norma Padgett, who is white, was driving home from a dance with her husband when their car broke down. She said that four black men stopped to help the couple, but instead attacked her husband and took turns raping her.
Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas were fingered for the crime, and Greenlee, Irvin and Shepherd were arrested. During the search for him, Thomas was executed by a mob that shot him over 400 times, according to the Washington Post.
The surviving three men were convicted at a trial that appears to have rested, in part, on falsified evidence, according to the Associated Press. Greenlee, then 16-years-old, was sentenced to life in prison, but Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to die.
Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer with the NAACP, won Shepherd and Irvin a new trial on appeal to the Supreme Court over improper grand jury procedures; Greenlee chose not to appeal as a new trial could have meant a death sentence, according to The Daily Commercial. Both Irvin and Shepherd were shot by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall for allegedly trying to escape on their way to the second trial. Shepherd did not survive; Irvin said the sheriff shot the two in cold blood. Irvin was convicted a second time.
After years in prison, Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012. Irvin was paroled in 1968 and died a year later.
Their families have kept fighting to clear their names and, in 2013, the book, “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America,” revived interest in the case.
In 2017, the Florida legislature issued a resolution formally apologizing to the Groveland Four. Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi ordered a review of the case in 2018. A year later, the men were pardoned by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
“For 70 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 according to CNN. “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.”
Last month, local state attorney, Bill Gladson filed a motion for the men to be exonerated.
“The evidence strongly suggests that a sheriff, a judge, and prosecutor all but guaranteed guilty verdicts in this case,” the motion states. “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.”
Gladson detailed other flaws in the case. The grandson of Jesse Hunter, the prosecutor in the original trials, said he found a letter suggesting that Hunter and the trial judge doubted that the rape occurred. A sheriff’s deputy may have tampered with exhibits for the trial or created evidence.
The Washington Post reports that investigative reports from 1949 found that the doctor who examined Padgett found no evidence of semen and was not certain she was raped.
Padgett has maintained throughout the decades that the men raped her.
“I am not no liar,” she said in 2019 at a clemency hearing, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “If I had to go to court today, I could tell you the same story.”
On Monday, a Florida judge posthumously exonerated Greenlee, Irvin, Shepherd and Thomas. Their families were in the courtroom for the announcement.
“Wow, it’s been a long time coming,” Gerald Threat, Irvin’s nephew, said during a news conference on Monday. “This Thanksgiving, we can have an entirely different atmosphere without this hanging over our head.”
Carol Greenlee, the daughter of Charles Greenlee, said, “My father was a caring, loving, compassionate person that did not rape anybody.”
Thurgood Marshall, Jr., son of the late Supreme Court Justice, told USA Today that the case of the Groveland Four “haunted” his father.
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