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Four black men have received posthumous pardons for a rape that never happened 70 years ago

The Groveland Four. In this undated image released by the State Library and Archives of Florida, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, far left, and an unidentified man stand next to Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee, from left, in Florida. The three men along with a fourth were charged with rape in 1949.

Florida’s governor and his cabinet, acting as the state’s Clemency Board, on Friday issued posthumous pardons to four young black men who were interrogated, tortured and wrongly convicted for the 1949 rape of a white woman by an all-white jury. One of the boys was murdered before he was charged.

Friday’s vote came nearly two years after the Florida Senate and the State House voted to apologize formally to the relatives of the men, known as the Groveland Four, after determining the woman was never raped. Then Governor Rick Scott was asked to pardon the men, but he did not take any action and did not provide an explanation for not doing  so. Scott is now a U.S. Senator.

Rick DeSantis, Florida’s new governor,  who was sworn into office last week, made the pardons a priority. “I think the way this was carried out was a miscarriage of justice,” DeSantis said.

In 1949 in Lake County, Norma Padgett, then 17, claimed she had been raped by the four men after a car in which she a passenger driven by husband broke. The four men offered to help but instead raped her, she claimed.

Three of the accused men were arrested. Ernest Thomas, a fourth man, escaped, but he was hunted down by a posse of 1,000 men. He was shot 400 times as he slept under a tree.

White mobs also terrorized black neighborhoods, burning down houses and firing bullets into the homes.

Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd were convicted of rape and sentenced to death on Padgett’s word. Charles Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison because of his age.

Padgett, now elderly and confined to a wheelchair, attended the hearing, still claiming she had been raped. Surrounded by male relatives, Padgett pleaded with the cabinet not to pardon the men.

Shepherd’s cousin, Beverly Robinson, called Padgett and her family liars, which almost led to a fist fight between members of the two families.

A physician who examined Padgett at the time of the alleged assault said she wasn’t raped. Padgett held onto the belief that she had been raped although medical evidence proved she had not been. During the trial, Judge Truman Futch refused to let the defense call the examining physician as a witness.

This is not unusual. In another earlier and now-historic case, Irene Tuskin, 19, claimed she had been raped by three black men on June 15, 1920 in Duluth, Minnesota. A physician determined that she had not been raped after examining her.

A white woman’s accusation against a black man, however, was law. A mob knocked the sheriff out of the way and lynched the three men —-Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie. Duluth, where singer Bob Dylan lived as a child before his family moved elsewhere.  Later, Duluth erected a monument to honor the three men.

Thurgood Marshall, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who would later become the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice, handled the appeals for Irvin and Shepherd.

The book “Devil in the Grove”

 

Thurgood Marshall

In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered new trials. Before the trials began, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot Irvin and Shepherd, claiming the handcuffed men were trying to escape. McCall shot to death Shepard. Irvin played dead and lived.

Greenlee was paroled in 1960 and he died in 2012. Irvin was paroled in 1968 and died a year later.

The story about the four men was told in the 2013 Pulitzer-prize winning book “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America,” by Gilbert King.

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