Gov. Ron DeSantis and the new state Cabinet held their first meeting Friday and made history. Correcting a longstanding injustice, the governor and the Cabinet officially pardoned the Groveland Four, the four African American men who were accused of raping a white woman in 1949 and then victimized by a justice system rotted by racism. The action marks an important acknowledgment of a dark episode in Florida’s past that should be remembered but never repeated.
On the night of July 16, 1949, 17-year-old Norma Padgett and her husband were driving outside the Lake County town of Groveland when their car broke down. Four black men stopped to help, but then, Padgett said, they beat her husband and dragged her away and sexually assaulted her at gunpoint. The infamous Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall arrested Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, Ernest Thomas and Charles Greenlee, who was only 16 and had come to town looking for work. Within days, Thomas, a World War II veteran, escaped from the county jail and was lynched by a mob in the Panhandle. The other three were beaten in custody until they confessed and were convicted by an all-white jury.
The injustice did not stop there. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out the convictions, but as McCall was transporting Shepherd and Irvin to their second trial three years later, he shot them in cold blood, saying they had tried to escape. Shepherd died on the spot. Irvin faced trial again and lost in the face of manufactured evidence. Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence to life, and Irvin was paroled in 1968. Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012.
Friday’s clemency hearing was the culmination of years of work to pardon the men. Elected officials from Lake County attended, as well as legislators, historians and family members of the four who believe the crime never happened. Then Padgett spoke, insisting she has always told the truth and still relives the horror of her attack every day. But the purpose of the hearing was not to re-investigate or re-litigate the case.
That possibility was lost 70 years ago, when Thomas was lynched and the others lost their freedom to a system corrupted by racists bent on vengeance. It was buried deeper when McCall murdered Shepherd and when Irvin, given a reprieve by the nation’s highest court, was deprived a fair trial again. Those perversions of justice are what was finally corrected Friday.
The Florida Legislature unanimously passed a resolution in 2017 “offering a formal and heartfelt apology to these victims of racial hatred and to their families” and asking former Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet to expedite the pardon process. Scott never made it a priority. It should stand as an early mark of his character and independence that DeSantis took up the cause on his busy first week in office. He noted his belief in the Constitution and in “getting a fair shake.” The Groveland Four never got that, and now the official state record says so.