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Democrat Nikki Fried will move to pardon Groveland Four, victims of Florida’s racist past

She says she'll make a move to speed up the pardon process during her first Cabinet meeting.
Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, far left, and an unidentified man stand next to Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee.Florida Memory Project
Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, far left, and an unidentified man stand next to Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee.Florida Memory Project
Published Dec. 17, 2018|Updated Dec. 17, 2018

Incoming Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried says she'll move to pardon members of the Groveland Four during the first meeting of Florida's Cabinet next year, a formal — though modest — concession to one of the worst abuses in state history.

"The families have suffered, the legislature has spoken, and history shows that this was an undeniable injustice — racially motivated and a stain on the history of our state," she said in a statement. "We must look to correct this grave injustice and denounce the abuses of the past."

The Florida Legislature last year asked Gov. Rick Scott and the other three members of the Clemency Board to speed up the process to posthumously pardon the men, who were wrongly accused of raping a white woman in 1949 and then murdered, tortured or wrongly imprisoned.

But neither Scott nor the other three members of the board have done so. And the board's last meeting has been indefinitely postponed, making it unlikely that Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam will have another chance at it before they leave office on Jan. 8.

Fried said she plans on bringing up their cases during her first Cabinet meeting, where she plans on convincing her new Republican colleagues to pardon them.

"During the collegial discussions, I hope to convince my colleagues that a pardon is the right and just decision," Fried said in a statement.

Fried's action would force a vote to pardon most of the members of the Groveland Four. (One of the four was shot and killed by a posse before he could face charges.)

But forcing a vote would not guarantee their pardons. Clemency Board rules require the vote of the governor plus two members of the board for someone to be pardoned.

Incoming Attorney General Ashley Moody has hinted that she's interested in a pardon.

"It's going to be one of the first things I look at when we get to work," Moody told Florida Politics. "It's something I'm very interested in."

But the next governor, Ron DeSantis, has not said anything about it. And his spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about his opinion on the pardons.

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who had been appointed by Scott to fill a vacancy, was elected to his first full term and is the only Cabinet officer returning.  He's been mum about what he would do.

In November, Fried became the first Democrat elected to the Cabinet since Alex Sink in 2006.

Her stance on the Groveland Four is likely influenced by one of her advisors, Chris Hand, an attorney who used to be press secretary for Gov. Bob Graham.

Hand, who is on Fried's transition team, has has been part of a group helping to pardon the men.

If Fried makes good on her promise, it could result in pardons for two of the four men, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin. The other two do not have convictions on their records that could be overturned.

Samuel Shepherd had his conviction and death sentence overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, and before he could be retried, he was shot and killed by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall.

McCall claimed Shepherd and Irvin, whose conviction was also overturned, ran away from him, but evidence showed they were shot while lying down. Irvin survived the shooting and was convicted a second time.

And Ernest Thomas was shot and killed by an armed posse before he was ever charged with a crime.

The Legislature last year issued a "formal and heartfelt apology to these victims of racial hatred and to their families."

Hand noted that clemency rules allow for the board to pardon any conviction, even if that conviction has been overturned. And he hopes that they issue a pardon for Thomas, who was "accused, convicted and executed by a mob before he could even enter the court system," Hand said.

"At the very least, the Clemency Board should recognize the injustices visited upon Mr. Shepherd and Mr. Young, and fully and finally clear their names," Hand said.


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