Four Black men accused of rape could get 'full justice' 72 years later

In the summer of 1949, a 17-year-old named Norma Padgett made an accusation that would thrust Groveland, Florida, a rural community near Orlando, into decadeslong turmoil: While driving home from a dance with her husband, the couple’s car stalled. Padgett told police they were met by four young Black men who attacked her husband and then abducted and raped her at gunpoint.

The claims made by Padgett, who is white and now in her 80s, set off a manhunt that spurred an onslaught of violence against Black residents of Groveland, mobilizing the National Guard and prompting Thurgood Marshall, then a lead attorney for the NAACP, to take up the cause of the men who would come to be known as the Groveland Four.

While the accused — Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas — have since died, it took seven decades before the state of Florida formally recognized how they were failed by the criminal justice system. In 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a posthumous pardon.

But on Monday, a circuit court judge in Lake County could go further by dismissing the charges against the men, issuing a ruling that would effectively exonerate them of the crime. Such an extraordinary move was set into motion last month, when local prosecutor Bill Gladson filed paperwork to toss Thomas’ and Shepherd’s indictments and set aside the sentences and judgments imposed on Greenlee and Irvin.

“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,” said Carol Greenlee, the daughter of Charles Greenlee, who was the youngest of the suspects, then just 16.

Carol Greenlee said in a statement that despite proclamations from the governor and the state Legislature and a monument dedicated in the Groveland Four’s honor, “full justice depends on action from the judicial branch. I hope this motion will result in that full justice.”

The Groveland Four became a disturbing example of racial injustice from the Jim Crow-era, and preceded the high-profile killing of Emmett Till, a Black teenager in Mississippi who was lynched in 1955 by white men after he was accused of whistling at a white woman.

Such incidents show how the desire to protect white women was used to justify racism and the oppression of Black people’s rights, said author Gilbert King, whose book “Devil in the Grove,” which investigated the Groveland Four case, won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2013.

Gladson’s decision to ask a judge to dismiss charges against the Groveland Four is not based on whether or not Padgett may be lying, King said, but rather on the prosecutorial misconduct and the fabricating of evidence at the time.

Following the accusations made by Padgett, a mob led by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall killed Thomas. Meanwhile, Greenlee, Irvin and Shepherd were arrested and later convicted by all-white juries.

Marshall, who years later would become the first Black justice of the Supreme Court, had helped Irvin and Shepherd win appeals to have their case retried. In 1951, while Irvin and Shepherd were being transported, McCall shot the men, claiming they tried to escape. Shepherd, a World War II veteran, died, but Irvin survived and was convicted even though an FBI agent testified that prosecutors manufactured evidence against the men.

Relatives of the Groveland Four, including Carol Greenlee, right, gather at an unveiled monument in front of the Old Lake County Courthouse in Tavares, Fla., on Feb. 21, 2020. Joe Burbank / TNS via Getty Images file

Irvin, also a World War II veteran, received the death penalty. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison, and he was eventually paroled in 1968. He died the following year.

Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012.

Padgett has rarely spoken publicly about the case, and her family did not return a message seeking comment. She last appeared before the state clemency board in January 2019 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.”

As part of his investigation, Gladson spoke with a grandson of the prosecutor in the case, now deceased, who said his grandfather and a judge believed no rape occurred. Gladson also had Irvin’s pants tested at a crime lab, and the results showed no evidence of semen even though jurors at his trial were made to believe it existed.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Lake County Sheriff Peyton C. Grinnell, state Rep. Geraldine Thompson and other elected officials and family members unveil the Groveland Four monument in front of the Old Lake County Courthouse in Tavares, Fla., on Feb. 21, 2020. Joe Burbank / TNS via Getty Images file

“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 wrote in his motion. “I have not witnessed a more complete breakdown of the criminal justice system.”

If the Groveland Four’s case is dismissed, it would be a rarity, particularly when none of the accused are still living, and prosecutors are generally reluctant or unable to revisit older cases because witnesses are no longer alive or documents and evidence are destroyed or missing.

Other states this month moved to recognize people arrested for crimes in such historic cases. A state board in Louisiana unanimously granted a posthumous pardon to Homer Plessy, a Creole man who refused to leave a whites-only train car in the 1890s, which led to the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” ruling. In New York, two men who served decades in prison despite proclaiming their innocence in the 1965 assassination of civil rights icon Malcolm X had their convictions formally thrown out Thursday. Only one of the two men is still alive.

A reopening of civil rights-era cases — and a reckoning with the past — are essential, King said.

“Sometimes, by going back into the past and correcting a gross injustice, it adds more integrity to the court system today,” he said.