More than 70 years ago, a heinous accusation led to the criminalization of four young, Black men in Florida. On a summer night in 1949, NBC News reports that a 17-year-old by the name of Norma Padgett was driving home with her husband in Groveland, Florida when the car stalled. As the two worked to get the car fixed, Padgett claims her husband was attacked while she was held at gunpoint and raped.
According to a report from NBC News, Padgett's accusation empowered Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall and a violent mob to hunt down four young men that would be known to the world as the "Groveland Four." In a violent rage, the mob killed a young man by the name of Ernest Thomas while arresting Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd. Soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP learned of the case and offered legal support, but the trio was still tried and convicted by an all-White jury despite a lack of evidence to support Pagett's claim.
Despite the initial setbacks in this case, Marshall continued to fight for Greenlee, Irving and Shepherd. Through his efforts, he was able to secure a retrial for Irvin and Shepherd in 1951. However, the two men were shot by officers of the law while being transported. Shepherd, a World War II veteran, was pronounced dead while Irvin survived, only to be accused of trying to escape police custody. In spite of an FBI agent testifying in his favor, Irvin received the death penalty. Fortunately, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison and he was eventually offered parole in 1968. NBC News reports that he passed away in 1969. The fourth member of the "Groveland Four," Charles Greenlee, was paroled in 1962 before passing away 50 years later.
After years of being accused of a crime that was never proven to have taken place, the four men were offered a posthumous pardon by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in 2019. On Monday, The Hill reports that a circuit court judge in Lake County has taken things a step further and issued a ruling that effectively exonerates them of the crime.
"My family and I are deeply grateful to State Attorney Bill Gladson and his team for their dedicated efforts to review the case and right the wrongs committed against the Groveland Four more than seven decades ago," Greenlee's daughter, Carol, told NBC News.
This ruling moves in favor of Greenlee, Irving, Shepherd and Thomas while running contrary to the statements provided by Padgett. In 2019, she offered counter testimony in hopes that the four men would not receive clemency from the state.
"Y'all just don't know what kind of horror I've been through for all these many years," she said, according to NBC News.
"I don't want them pardoned, no I do not, and you wouldn't neither."
Despite Padgett's insistence that Greenlee, Irvin, Shepherd and Thomas raped her, there is little evidence to support her claim. According to NBC News, an investigation led by Gladson found that neither the judge or the prosecutor believe a rape took place. Furthermore, Irvin's pants were tested and the results showed no evidence of semen even though jurors at his trial were made to believe it did exist.
"Officials, disguised as keepers of the peace and masquerading as ministers of justice, disregarded their oaths, and set in motion a series of events that forever destroyed these men, their families, and a community," Gladson stated, according to NBC News.
"I have not witnessed a more complete breakdown of the criminal justice system."
This story was updated at 5:05 p.m. ET to reflect the posthumous exoneration of Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd.
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The Association of Black Psychologists 1-301-449-3082
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America 1-240-485-1001
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