Nearly 70 years after four black men were wrongly convicted of kidnapping and raping a young white housewife in Groveland, Florida, the state’s clemency board unanimously voted on Friday to have them pardoned.
Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irving, Charles Greenlee and Ernest Thomas—known as the “Groveland Four”—were granted posthumous pardons by the Florida Board of Executive Clemency in the unprecedented case that is widely considered among Florida’s worst instances of discrimination and systemic Jim Crow-era racism.
All four men are dead; the last surviving of the group died in 2012.
“I believe in the principles of the constitution, I believe in getting a fair shake,” newly elected Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was on the board, said Friday. “I don't think there any way that you can look at this case and see justice was carried out."
On July 16, 1949, Norma Padgett, a 17-year-old white woman, and her husband, Willie, told authorities they were attacked and robbed by four teenagers who stopped at the couple’s car while it was stalled on dark road just outside Groveland, a rural area 40 minutes west of Orlando.
Norma alleged she was then kidnapped and raped by the four men.
Within hours of their accusations, a lynch mob formed, setting fire to at least one of the accused men’s homes before firing weapons randomly into the other three’s.
Police arrested Irving and Shepherd shortly thereafter, taking the two men to a secluded spot, before ordering them out of the car and beating them with blackjacks. Greenlee, meanwhile, was interrogated and beaten in a cell until he confessed to raping Norma Padgett—an admission he later recanted in court.
Thomas initially escaped capture, but was later tracked down several days later by an angry posse of roughly 1,000 men and was shot approximately 400 times, according to authorities.
Despite questionable evidence, Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death and Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison, because he was a minor at the time.
“The Groveland Four have been waiting 70 years for justice,” Chris Hand, an attorney representing the four men, told The Daily Beast on Friday.
The decision came after emotional testimony from family members of the Groveland Four and from Padgett herself, who spoke publicly about the alleged assault for the first time since the trial.
“I’m the victim of that night. I tell you now, that it’s been on my mind for 70 years. I was 17 years old and it’s never left my mind,” she said, her sons standing behind her. “I’m begging y’all not to give the pardons because they did it. If you do, you’re going to be just like them.”
Through tears, Padgett described to the board her decision to keep quiet for years, having feared retribution against her sons. Now, seven decades later, she fears what the news will do to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“You all just don’t know what kind of horror I’ve been through for all these many years,” the mother of three said. “I don’t want them pardoned, no I do not. And you wouldn’t, either.”
Thomas Greenlee, one of Charles’ children, traveled to Tallahassee from Jacksonville for the Friday hearing, telling the board how this wrongful conviction affected more than those accused—but also their family members.
“He was clearly convicted by a person who just said he did it. The climate of those times—that’s all they need,” Greenlee said. “He wasn’t there for birthdays. He wasn’t there to help with homework. He just was not there. You put someone into a situation where you not only affect him, but the whole family.”
Despite Padgett’s plea, however, DeSantis and the board sided with the families and granted pardons for the four black men after a coalition of the men’s families have pushed for years—an effort that intensified after the Florida Legislature offered a formal apology in 2017.
“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,” Democratic Rep. Bobby DuBose, who sponsored a bill calling for the pardons, said at the time.
This is the first case heard by the newly elected Florida Cabinet, and the meeting Friday was only supposed to discussing the possibility of posthumous clemency. Instead, the families of from both sides showed up to speak, prompting DeSantis to call for a vote at the very end of the meeting.
“The thing is, when you’re looking at these issues of pardons, you still have to have good justice even if someone wasn’t innocent,” DeSantis told reporters after the vote. “To me, I look at how this whole thing went and I think that when the legislature passed the resolution in 2017, they were right—this was a miscarriage of justice.”
The Groveland Four’s case re-gained attention as the focus of a 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Devil in the Grove, by Gilbert King, who also testified to the board on Friday.
His book, which focused on the case’s role in the life of Thurgood Marshall, who was then a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was involved in defending the Groveland Four before later becoming a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
In 1951, Marshall appealed the Groveland Four case all the way to the Supreme Court, which resulted in all three convictions being unanimously overturned due to and returned to lower courts for new trials.
Before their release from death row, however, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, who originally handled the case, shot two of the Groveland Four during transport to another location. Shepherd died at the scene, while Irvin—who played dead—survived. The shootings were deemed justified by an all-white jury panel.
Irvin’s sentence was later commuted to life in prison and he was paroled in 1962. Charles Greenlee did not appeal his conviction, according to a PBS investigation, and spent 12 years in prison. He died in 2012 at age 78.
This is the second time the Florida Cabinet has issued a posthumous pardon. In 2010, Gov. Charlie Crist pardoned The Doors’ singer Jim Morrison for a conviction of indecent exposure after a Miami concert in 1969—more than 39 years after his death.