Florida Groveland 4 acquitted of raping a white woman in 1949
A judge on Monday formally acquitted four young African-Americans of the false accusation that they raped a white woman seven decades ago, providing partial and overdue amendments to one of the greatest miscarriages of justice of the Jim Crow era in Florida.
At the request of the district attorney, Administrative Judge Heidi Davis dismissed the indictments of Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd, who were shot dead by law enforcement, and overturned the convictions and sentences of Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvine. The men known as the Groveland Four, who ranged in age from 16 to 26 at the time, were accused of raping a woman in the central Florida town of Groveland in 1949.
“We followed the evidence to see where it led us to this moment,” Bill Gladson, the state’s local attorney general, said after the hearing in the same Lake County courthouse where the original trials took place. Gladson, a Republican, last month moved to formally acquit the men.
The men’s families said the case may lead to a review of other convictions of black men and women from the Jim Crow era so that those falsely convicted can be acquitted.
“We’re blessed. I hope this is a start because a lot of people haven’t had that opportunity. A lot of families haven’t had that chance. Maybe they will,” said Aaron Newson, Thomas’s nephew. He broke down in tears as he spoke. to unite.”
Thomas was shot and killed more than 400 times soon after he was accused of rape. Local Mayor Willis McCall shot and wounded Irvine in 1951 as he was leading them to a second trial after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their original convictions, saying no evidence had been presented. The sheriff claimed the men tried to escape, but Irvine said McCall and his deputy shot them in cold blood.
Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize winner for his 2012 book on the case, The Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, attended the hearing with Thurgood Marshall Jr., the son of the late U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Thurgood Marshall Sr., then with the NAACP, represented Irvine during his second trial, but an all-white jury convicted him again and sentenced him to death. Irvine narrowly escaped execution in 1954 and Governor Leroy Collins commuted his sentence to life on parole. Greenlee, who was also sentenced to life imprisonment, was released in 1962 and died in 2012. Irvine died in 1969, one year after his release.
King said the acquittal of the men in the same building where the trials were held “was of great importance because upstairs there was a courtroom where the abomination of justice took place 72 years ago.” He praised Gladson for bringing justice.
“He could easily have ended this case and let someone else deal with it,” King said. “Even when it was frustrating and he felt there was no way toward this day, he just went deeper.”
Marshall Jr. said, perhaps more than in any other case, that the Groveland Four family “stalked” his father.
“But he thought better days were coming,” said Marshall Jr.
The Florida legislature in 2017 formally apologized to the men’s families. Governor Ron DeSantis and the state’s three-member Cabinet granted pardons after his death more than two years ago. In 2018, then-Florida Attorney General Pam Bundy directed the state’s Department of Law Enforcement to review the case. Earlier this year, the agency referred its findings to Gladson for review.
Gladson and an investigator interviewed the grandson of Jesse Hunter, the deceased attorney general of two of the four Groveland defendants. According to the grandson, Broward Hunter, his grandfather and the judge in the case knew there had been no rape.
The grandson also suggested to Gladson, based on letters he found in his grandfather’s office in 1971, that Willis might have shot Shepherd and Irvine for the mayor’s involvement in an illegal gambling operation. Shepherd was believed to be involved in the gambling process as well, and Willis may have seen a rape case as “a way to get some of the people on his list,” Hunter told the prosecutor and investigator.
Gladson also said that James Yates, the attorney who served as the lead witness, likely fabricated evidence, including shoe moulds.
The prosecutor also sent Irvine’s pants to a crime lab in September for a semen examination, something that never happened in Irvine’s trial, although jurors gave the impression that the pants had stained. The movement said the results showed no evidence of semen.
“The significance of this finding cannot be overstated,” Gladson said in his motion.