Black ExperienceBlack HistoryNationalStacy M. Brown

‘Groveland Four’ Exonerated in 1949 Rape Case

A judge in Florida on Monday exonerated the “Groveland Four,” the African American men convicted of raping a white teenager in 1949.

Administrative Judge Heidi Davis dismissed the indictments of Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd, both fatally shot not long after the allegation made by Norma Padgett, who was 17 at the time.

Judge Davis then set aside the convictions and sentences of Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin.

The men who became known as the Groveland Four ranged from 16 to 26 at the time.

“We followed the evidence to see where it led us, and it led us to this moment,” state attorney Bill Gladson said during the news conference.

Carol Greenlee, the daughter of Charles Greenlee, said, “My father was a caring, loving, compassionate person that did not rape anybody.”

Gerald Threat, the nephew of Walter Irvin, said the ruling was “a long time coming.”

“This Thanksgiving, we can have an entirely different atmosphere without this hanging over our head,” Threat said at a news conference following the judge’s ruling on Monday

Following the 1949 accusation, the Ku Klux set fire to numerous Black neighborhoods in the town of Groveland.

The Klan reportedly shot Thomas more than 400 times, killing him. They beat confessions out of Greenlee, Irvin and Shepherd.

An all-white jury convicted the men, but legendary NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall successfully fought for a new trial.

Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot and killed Shepherd, claiming he attempted to escape.

During the retrial, jurors still returned a guilty verdict, but Greenlee and Irvin were given life sentences instead of the death penalty.

Officials granted Irvin his release from state prison in 1968. He died one year later of a heart attack at age 39.

Charles Greenlee, the last surviving member of the Groveland Four, was released on parole in 1962 and moved to Nashville, Tennessee. He died on April 18, 2012, at 78.

Independent investigations determined that all four were innocent, and in 2017, the state issued an apology to their families.

Norma Padgett, however, maintained as recently as two years ago that she told the truth about the alleged incident.

In 2019, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis granted the men pardons, but family members continued their fight to clear their names fully.

Stacy M. Brown

I’ve worked for the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times, Gannet and the Times-Tribune and have contributed to the Pocono Record, the New York Post and the New York Times. Television news opportunities have included: NBC, MSNBC, Scarborough Country, the Abrams Report, Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Imus in the Morning and Anderson Cooper 360. Radio programs like the Wendy Williams Experience, Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Howard Stern Show have also provided me the chance to share my views.

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