- Oct 25, 2017
Seventy years ago in Groveland, Fla., a white teenager named Norma Padgett accused four black men of kidnapping and raping her in a car on a dark road.
Two of the men would eventually be shot dead by the segregationist sheriff of Lake County and his angry mob, and the other two wrongfully convicted on little evidence. The case of the Groveland Four, as they became known, inspired a Pulitzer-winning book and has been considered for decades one of Florida’s most grave injustices and a symbol of racism in the Jim Crow south.
In 2017, the state of Florida formally apologized for what happened in the summer of 1949. And on Friday, the state’s clemency board voted to posthumously pardon all four men: Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin.
The deciding factor, the board said, was not whether Padgett lied — as the relatives of the accused insisted she’d done — but whether the men ever had a chance at a fair trial. Padgett, now 86, watched from her wheelchair as newly-inaugurated Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) declared that they had not. He called the case a “miscarriage of justice" and said that the “only appropriate thing to do is to grant pardons.”
The case began on a summer night in 1949. Padgett testified that she and her husband, Willie Padgett, had been driving back from a dance when their car broke down. Shepherd and Irvin, friends from the Army, reportedly stopped to help. But the Padgetts would later tell law enforcement in Lake County that the men, plus Thomas and Greenlee, attacked Willie and took turns raping Norma.
Within days of Padgett’s accusations, authorities had jailed Shepherd, Greenlee and Irvin. An angry mob led by the white supremacist Sheriff Willis V. McCall chased Thomas 200 miles into the Florida Panhandle, where they shot him dead. In Groveland, rioters torched black-owned homes, sparking an unrest so intense that the governor eventually sent in the National Guard.
At the time, neighbors quietly doubted the Padgett’s version of events amid speculation that her account was merely a coverup for her husband’s suspected beatings. Despite a lack of evidence, a jury quickly convicted the three men who were still alive.
Greenlee, just 16 at the time, was sent to prison for life. Shepherd and Irvin were initially sentenced to death.
King found evidence that Padgett had perjured herself and documents that proved the doctor who examined her that night found no physical evidence of rape. He also wrote that the sheriff’s office fabricated footprint evidence that supposedly linked the men to the crime scene.
Shepherd and Irvin appealed their death sentence, and although the Florida Supreme Court initially upheld their convictions, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned them and ordered a retrial. But on their return trip from prison to Lake County for their new trial, Sheriff McCall shot them both. He claimed the men tried to escape.
Shepherd died at the scene. Irvin played dead and survived. He later said the sheriff fired on them in cold blood and bragged on the police radio that he’d “got rid of them.”