Almost 70 years later, Florida prepares apology to families of the Groveland Four

Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, far left, and an unidentified man stand next to Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee.
Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, far left, and an unidentified man stand next to Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee.
Published Apr. 19, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature moved closer Tuesday to extending a historic apology to the families of four black men who were wrongly accused of rape in 1949 then tortured, murdered or unjustly imprisoned after one of the ugliest racist episodes in state history.

Known as the Groveland Four, none of the four men — Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Ernest Thomas — are still living, but members of their families were seated in the gallery of the House chamber when lawmakers voted 117-0 to unanimously join as sponsors of HCR 631. The measure exonerates the men and asks Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet to expedite consideration of posthumous pardons.

"This resolution, while seemingly minute, symbolizes the great state of Florida looking those families in the eyes — families, with children, who grew up not knowing their fathers but only knew their records," said Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale, a sponsor of the bill. "This resolution is us simply saying, 'We're sorry' — understanding we will never know or make up for the pain we have caused."

A similar bill is scheduled for a vote in the full Senate and is expected to go to the governor.

The four men were accused of raping 17-year-old Norma Padgett in Groveland. Padgett, along with her estranged husband, told police that on the night of July 16, 1949, their car had broken down just outside of town. They claimed that four black men stopped, got out of their car and then raped her.

Sheriff Willis McCall arrested Thomas, World War II veterans Irvin and Shepherd, and Greenlee, a new father who had traveled to Lake County seeking work in a citrus grove. Within days, Thomas escaped from the county jail and fled only to be captured by a posse and killed in Madison County — after being shot multiple times.

The other three were beaten in jail to coerce confessions. The three survivors were convicted at trial by an all-white jury. Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death, and Greenlee, only age 16, was sentenced to life in prison.

When Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund offered to take the case, it rose to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ordered a retrial. Three years later, McCall shot both Shepherd and Irvin while he was transporting them for the second trial, claiming the handcuffed men were trying to escape.

Shepherd died on the spot. Irvin survived by pretending to be dead. He later told investigators the sheriff shot them in cold blood. Relying on evidence the FBI later said was manufactured by law enforcement, Irvin was convicted and sentenced to death again.

Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence to life in 1955 and Irvin was paroled in 1968. Two years later he was found dead in his car while visiting Lake County during a funeral. Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012.

Families of the men traveled to Tallahassee from Georgia and Tennessee to watch lawmakers vote.

"I'm the child who my father had when he went to Lake County to try to earn a living in the citrus groves," said Carol Greenlee, 67.

Her eyes welled with tears. "I'm the child that went to the prison one Sunday with my mother, and my daddy kissed me on the head and said don't bring her back. It's too hard," she said.

She said she didn't "have the courage to ask him what happened until I was 40."

Thomas Greenlee, 52, her younger brother, was born two years after their father left prison. He recalls learning about his father's imprisonment for the first time when he was 16 and playing football at a neighboring high school outside of Nashville. The hosts had raised a burning cross next to the stadium.

Fearing a riot at the end of the game, the coaches maneuvered the players onto buses and off the field before they ran the final play.

When his father learned of the tension, Thomas Greenlee said his father told him it was "deja vu" and was prepared to die for his son that night if a riot had ensued. He told his mother: "I may not make it home tonight, but he will."

This is the third year a bill has been filed seeking a formal apology and exoneration of the Groveland Four but, each time before, the sponsor, former Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, never got a hearing.

This year, lawmakers have sent a message, Thomas Greenlee said.

"Justice was delayed, but it was never denied," he said. "It was bound to come."

The fate of the Groveland Four has spawned a grass roots movement of support after it was featured in the 2013 book Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Devil in the Grove, by Gilbert King.

The story inspired Ben Polsky, a 10-year-old from Cooper City, to write his version of the story and publish it. His friend, Kalia Jones, 10, of Fort Lauderdale started a book club featuring it.

"It's moved me so much," Polsky said at a news conference with the families on Tuesday.

Rep. Larry Metz, a Yalaha Republican whose district includes Groveland, called the event "a grave injustice."

"It's never too late to do the right thing," he said.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas.