TALLAHASSEE — After nearly 70 years, all members of the Groveland Four — four young black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in Lake County — were pardoned by a unanimous vote Friday.
Florida's new Cabinet and Gov. Ron DeSantis met for the first time as the state Clemency Board Friday, where they heard from family members of the men who were either imprisoned, tortured or murdered by mobs and a racist sheriff. The Groveland Four matter was only supposed to be up for discussion and families were not expecting to hear a vote Friday. But at the very end of the meeting, DeSantis called for a vote.
"I believe in the principles of the Constitution. I believe in getting a fair shake," he said. "I don't think there's any way that you can look at this case and see justice was carried out."
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Some call the treatment of the four men one of the worst episodes of racism in American history. In 1949, a 17-year-old white woman and her estranged husband told police that she'd been kidnapped and raped by four black men after the couple's car broke down outside Groveland, in Lake County. Sheriff Willis McCall arrested the four men, even though Charles Greenlee, 17, was arrested in a separate incident 20 miles away when the alleged rape occurred and said he didn't know the other three men.
Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin told police they had stopped to help the couple but denied assaulting Norma Padgett. After being beaten by police in the county jail, both Greenlee and Shepherd confessed. Ernest Thomas escaped but was murdered two days later by a posse of 1,000 men who shot and killed Thomas while he slept under a tree in Madison County.
The families of Greenlee, Irvin, Shepherd and Thomas sat scattered throughout the room Friday in the Capitol. Some spoke at the podium in front of the Clemency Board.
After Thomas' murder, the other three men were convicted by all-white juries. Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to death, and Greenlee was given a life sentence. In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a retrial. Seven months later, while the sheriff was taking Shepherd and Irvin to a court hearing, he pulled over and shot the two men on the side of the road. Shepherd died, but Irvin pretended to be dead. The sheriff said they had tried to escape, but Irvin said they were shot while they were handcuffed to each other and lying on the ground.
Despite the evidence, Irvin was convicted again and given another death sentence. In 1955, Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence to life in prison, and he was paroled in 1968. Irvin was found dead in his car the next year. Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012.
Wade Greenlee, the younger brother of Charles, traveled to Tallahassee from Jacksonville for the hearing.
"We all know how things were back then," he said. "All you had to do was be black. The reason we're here today, is because Irving didn't die. God allowed him to live to tell the story."
Shepherd's cousin, Beverly Robinson, was also in the audience. During the meeting she turned and spoke directly to the accuser, Norma Padgett.
"It never happened, Miss Padgett," she said. "You and your family are liars."
Padgett, who sat surrounded by family in the front row, was wheeled to a microphone.
"I'm the victim of that night. I tell you now, that it's been on my mind for 70 years. I was 17 years old and it's never left my mind," she said, her sons standing behind her. "I'm begging y'all not to give the pardons because they did it. If you do, you're going to be just like them."
The Groveland Four's story became the focus of a 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the case, "Devil in the Grove." The author of the book, Gilbert King, testified in front of the board.
Thomas and Carol Greenlee, two of Charles' children, traveled to Tallahassee from Georgia and Tennessee for the hearing.
"He was clearly convicted by a person who just said he did it. The climate of those times — that's all they need," Thomas Greenlee said in front of the board. "He wasn't there for birthdays. He wasn't there to help with homework. He just was not there. You put someone into a situation where you not only affect him, but the whole family."
Carol Greenlee mentioned that when she used to ask her father about the trial, he always said he didn't even know the other men he was brought into the courtroom with.
"The evidence was in the record," she said. "He was accused, put in jail and tortured."
After the vote, Greenlee said she was overwhelmed because they hadn't expected a final answer when they traveled from Tennessee for the meeting.
"You can hold the truth down for so long, but eventually it will come out," she said. "My father used to tell me all the time that you may get tired, but don't quit. He said that is what kept him going."
In 2017, the Florida Legislature unanimously passed a bill asking former Gov. Rick Scott to go ahead and pardon them.
He refused and never answered questions as to why.
"Rick Scott didn't have the guts," Wade Greenlee said. "He could have done this with a stroke of a pen years ago. Gov. DeSantis didn't waste any time."
DeSantis, who spoke about the vote at a press conference before the Cabinet meeting, called the entire situation a "perversion of justice."
"The thing is, when you're looking at these issues of pardons, you still have to have good justice even if someone wasn't innocent," DeSantis said. "To me, I look at how this whole thing went and I think that when the Legislature passed the resolution in 2017, they were right — this was a miscarriage of justice."
After the vote, House Speaker José Oliva of Miami Lakes called the action "long overdue."
"I thank Governor DeSantis for his swift action in this matter and especially congratulate the descendants and family of the Groveland Four, who never gave up hope and saw justice done today," he said in a statement.
Senate President Bill Galvano echoed the sentiment, noting that the Senate did its due diligence in passing the resolution nearly two years ago.
"We all deserve fair and equal treatment under our laws," he said in a statement. "It is abundantly clear that time and time again the criminal justice system failed to protect the basic constitutional rights of these men."
Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who filed the rule to put the Groveland Four on the Clemency Board's agenda last year, said he didn't know then which board would be meeting to discuss it, referring to Scott and the former Cabinet officers or the new governor and Cabinet members.
"My point was just to get it on the agenda and address this miscarriage of justice," he said after the meeting.
Agriculture Commissioner Nicole "Nikki" Fried, who said earlier this week that she wanted more than just a discussion, said Friday she was pleased that the board came to a vote. Fried is now calling for a proclamation to work with FDLE to exonerate all four men.
"An exoneration makes a statement that we actually recognize what had happened and make sure that their names are cleared," said Fried, the first Democrat on the Cabinet since former CFO Alex Sink left office eight years ago.
Members of the Greenlee family, who have been fighting for this moment their whole adult lives, say their next steps are to continue pushing for exoneration and to reach out to communities where black men have been unjustly incarcerated.
"My father would have asked the question: 'Who would it help?' " Carol Greenlee said. "It took 70 years to get here. We will go into the prisons, into schools and communities and give them hope."