Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Friday issued posthumous pardons for the “Groveland Four,” four black men — Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas — who were wrongly convicted of raping a white girl, Norma Padgett, near Orlando in 1949.
“I don’t think there’s any way that you can look at this case and see justice was carried out,” DeSantis said. “For the Groveland Four, the truth was buried. The perpetrators celebrated, but justice has cried out from that day until this.” The Florida State House issued an apology to the four men’s families in 2017.
Padgett, who was 17 at the time of her accusation, claimed she was raped while her car was broken down. Shepherd and Irvin said they did stop to help Padgett with her car trouble but denied assaulting her; Greenlee, also only 17, was arrested 20 miles away and said he did not know the other three. However, after being tortured by police in jail, Greenlee and Shepherd confessed to the crime.
Thomas escaped and was murdered after being tracked in a large-scale manhunt. The other three were convicted by all-white juries. Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to death and Greenlee to life, and a retrial was ordered in 1951. Shepherd was fatally shot by a sheriff who claimed he attempted to escape; Irvin was also shot but survived by pretending to be dead. He said the sheriff attempted to execute the two men by the side of the road while they lay cuffed to each other.
Irvin’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison. He was paroled in 1968 and died in 1969. Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and lived until 2012. At Friday’s pardon hearing, Padgett continued to insist on the Groveland Four’s guilt. Bonnie Kristian