Editorial: Justice overdue for Groveland Four

The incoming governor and Cabinet should move quickly to pardon the wrongly accused men.
Published December 20 2018
Updated December 21 2018

Incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday he wants to take up the case of the Groveland Four at his first meeting with the state Cabinet in January as momentum builds for a pardon. This already is more than Gov. Rick Scott did in eight years to correct one of the state’s worst racial injustices. Now DeSantis and the Cabinet appear poised to follow through on a recommendation from the Legislature to posthumously clear the four black men who were falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949. That’s excellent news.

The story of the Groveland Four reads like a southern Gothic novel. But it’s a real page of Florida history, ugly and shameful and unjust. Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Ernest Thomas were accused of raping 17-year-old Norma Padgett in Groveland, in Lake County. Padgett and her estranged husband told police they were broken down outside town when the four men stopped their car, got out and raped her. Within days of their arrests, Thomas, a World War II veteran, escaped from the county jail but was captured by a posse and killed in Madison County. The other three were beaten in custody until they confessed and were convicted at trial by an all-white jury.

Even a victory at the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered a new trial, did not deliver justice. When Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall was transporting Shepherd and Irvin to trial three years later, he shot them in cold blood, claiming they tried to escape. Shepherd died on the spot. Irvin survived but in a second sham trial, he was convicted and sentenced to death again. Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence to life in 1955, and Irvin was paroled in 1968. Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012. Now, at the close of 2018, these men have still not been pardoned by the state that stole their lives.

Last year, in a remarkable act of bipartisanship, the Legislature unanimously passed a resolution “offering a formal and heartfelt apology to these victims of racial hatred and to their families” and asking Scott and the Cabinet to expedite the pardon process. Even for Scott, who set the cause of clemency back decades, this should have been an easy task. There was no political cost in pardoning the men, and not even much effort would have been required in following through on the Legislature’s request. But Scott is not much of a believer in redemption — not for former offenders seeking second chances, nor apparently for the system that is guilty beyond all doubt of persecuting the Groveland Four. No thanks are due the Cabinet members — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — who did not try to speed up the pardon process, either.

Sen. Marco Rubio this week added his voice to the calls for a pardon, saying “we can give these men back their good name.” That’s the least Florida can do for the families of Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Ernest Thomas, who have waited far too long. Incoming Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has vowed to push for a pardon, incoming Attorney General Ashley Moody indicated she’s on board and Patronis finally spoke up as well this week. Bondi belatedly asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review the case in anticipation of clearing the men’s names from the court system.

Better late than never. Atoning for this grave injustice and pardoning the Groveland Four requires the governor’s support. Scott lacked the compassion and perspective to take up this just cause. But as DeSantis said Thursday, “It’s never too late to do the right thing.’’