Groveland Four, Black Men Accused Of Rape of White Woman In 1949, Exonerated
It took seven decades, but a Lake County Circuit Court Judge cleared charges for the four Black men known as the Groveland Four and exonerated them on Monday.
The men, Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas, were failed by the justice system. Thomas was shot and killed by an angry white mob before he could be arrested, and Shepherd and Irvin were shot and killed by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall.
Last month, local prosecutor Bill Gladson set the move in motion when he filed motions to toss Thomas’ and Shepherd’s indictments and set aside Greenlee and Irvin’s sentences and judgments.
“We followed the evidence to see where it led us, and it led us to this moment,” Gladson said at a news conference according to NBC News.
Among those who traveled to the Sunshine State to see the judge’s decision was the son of Thurgood Marshall, who represented the Groveland Four.
“There are countless people we need to remember who suffered similar fates who have been lost to history,” Marshall Jr. said at the news conference. “Perhaps of all the cases my father worked on, this one haunted him for many, many years. And he believed there were better days ahead.”
The case of the Groveland Four is a disturbing example of the racial injustice that has plagued Black Americans since the end of slavery.
According to ABC News, Gladson argued in his motion that the state never tested Irvin’s pants for semen, which they were able to do at the time. Instead, the prosecution left the jury with the impression that Irvin’s pants included evidence of the rape. Additionally, the qualifications of the prosecution’s top witness are also in doubt. In the second trial, one of the defense witnesses stated that authorities made one of the casts intentionally tie Irvin to the scene.
Greenlee was sentenced to life due to a recommendation of mercy from the jury. Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death but appealed. In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated their convictions and ordered a new trial for each. However, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, who was transferring Shepherd and Irvin, shot both men, killing Shepherd and injuring Irvin.
Irvin was retried, convicted, and sentenced to death again, but the sentence was later commuted to life in prison. Meanwhile, McCall, who claimed self-defense, was never indicted. In 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis granted posthumous pardons to the men.