Groveland Four Cleared of 1949 Rape Conviction

The Groveland Four, a group of Black men who were accused of raping a white woman, had their case dismissed, NBC News reports.

Back in 1949, a then 17-year-old Norma Padgett, told police that while driving home from a dance with her husband, they were attacked by four young Black men, who abducted and raped her at gunpoint in Groveland, Florida.

Padgett, who’s in her 80’s, accused Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas of the assault. Her claims set off a manhunt that brought violent attacks upon the Black community, which eventually involved the National Guard. Taking up the case of the accused was Thurgood Marshall, who represented the NAACP legal team.

After Padgett’s accusations went public, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall and a mob of hundreds of white men found Thomas in a swamp where he slept and shot him more than 400 times. Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd were arrested and later convicted by all-white juries.

In 1951, McCall shot Irvin and Shepherd, claiming they tried to escape. Shepherd, a World War II veteran, died from his injuries. Irvin survived and was later convicted even though an FBI agent testified that prosecutors manufactured evidence against all the men.

Irvin, who also served in World War II, received the death penalty. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison, and he was eventually paroled in 1968. He passed away the next year.

Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and passed away in 2012.

In January of 2019, Padgett appeared before the state clemency board to ask them not to pardon the men.

“Y’all just don’t know what kind of horror I’ve been through for all these many years,” she told the board at the time. “I don’t want them pardoned, no I do not, and you wouldn’t neither.”

On Monday, a circuit court judge in Lake County cleared the charges against the men, exonerating them of the crime. Bill Gladson, a local prosecutor, filed paperwork to have the indictments of Thomas’ and Shepherd’s  thrown out as well as setting aside the sentences and judgments imposed on Greenlee and Irvin

“We followed the evidence to see where it led us, and it led us to this moment,” Gladson said at a news conference following the judge’s decision.

Carol Greenlee, the daughter of Charles Greenlee, who was only 16 when he was convicted, was overcome with emotion when the judge officially dismissed the charges.

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“If you know something is right, stand up for it,” she said later of the lessons she learned. “Be persistent.”

Greenlee also said that “despite proclamations from the governor and the state Legislature, plus, a monument dedicated in honor of the Groveland Four,” the families were awaiting “full justice” from the judicial branch to feel vindicated.

Marshall’s son, Thurgood Marshall Jr., was in attendance at the news conference.

“There are countless people we need to remember who suffered similar fates who have been lost to history,” Marshall Jr. said at the news conference. “Perhaps of all the cases my father worked on, this one haunted him for many, many years. And he believed there were better days ahead.”

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