In Groveland, Florida, four African-American men were found not guilty of raping a white woman in 1949. More than 70 years after they were falsely accused and convicted, Samuel Shepherd, Ernest Thomas, Walker Irvin, and Charles Greenlee commonly known as the Groveland Four, have been cleared of their charges.
According to Bill Gladson, a local state attorney, “we followed the facts to see where they led us,” and that’s where we are now. Those who were close to the boys, who have all died, have reacted to the news.
The daughter of Charles Greenlee told me, “I am here to thank you,” Carol Greenlee, explaining that she would not hate, but rather love and accept everyone who didn’t realize that Charles Greenlee was kind, loving, and sensitive.
In addition to Thomas, Aaron Newson, Thomas’ nephew, expressed his hope that other persons who were wrongly accused or convicted during the Jim Crow era would also be cleared of such charges. “We are blessed,” Aaron said. It is a start for many people, as they did not have the opportunity to do this. Quite a few families did not have the opportunity to do so. Maybe they will in the future. Let’s work together to make this country stronger.”
Following Norman Padgett’s accusation of sexual assault on Groveland Four on the night of July 16, 1949, they were arrested. A then-17-year-old woman alleged that her husband was attacked and that she was sexually assaulted after the car broke down. Greenlee and Sheperd were tortured by police upon reaching the scene, but Irvin, who was also beaten, refused to submit to their demands. As a result of the incident, Greenlee, who was 16 years old at the time, received a life sentence, while Shepherd and Irvin received death sentences.
Following Thomas’ arrest, a group of 1,000 white men who were part of a sheriff’s posse shot him more than 400 times.
A retrial was ordered for the Groveland Four in 1951 after the Supreme Court overturned their convictions. Sheperd and Irvin were shot by Sheriff William McCall on their way to the second trial, that he claimed was an escape attempt. Irvin, who survived the incident, was sentenced to death again after being convicted of a second time. A year before his death, he was paroled after receiving a commutation of his sentence. After being paroled in 1962, Greenlee passed away in 2012.
Following the apology from the Florida Legislature in 2017 and the pardons by Gov. Ron DeSantis two years later, the Groveland Four had received posthumous pardons. The case was dismissed by Lake County Circuit Court Judge Heidi Davis on Monday (Nov. 22), with no charges filed against Thomas or Shepherd, and no convictions against Greenlee or Irvin.