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 Gov. Ron DeSantis and a Cabinet granted posthumous pardons Friday, Jan. 11, 2019, to Shepherd, Irvin, Charles Greenlee and Ernest Thomas, the four African-American men accused of raping a white woman in 1949 in a case now seen as a racial injustice.
Photo: Uncredited (State Library and Archives of Florida via Associated Press)

Throughout the course of American history, justice has proven itself to be a privilege that far too often eludes black people. And while often times this infringement on our humanity is rectified retroactively, it can never replace our dignity or the lives broken or engulfed by a corrupted criminal justice system.

The most recent example of this is the Groveland Four—in which four young black men were falsely accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman during the summer of 1949 in Lake County, Fla.

However, after nearly 70 years, the Miami Herald reports that all four of the accused were pardoned by a unanimous vote on Friday:

The Florida Cabinet met for the first time as the state Clemency Board Friday, where it heard from family members of the men who were either imprisoned, tortured or murdered by mobs and a racist sheriff. The Groveland Four matter was only supposed to be up for discussion, and families were not expecting to hear a vote Friday. But at the very end of the meeting, Gov. Ron DeSantis called for a vote.

“I believe in the principles of the Constitution. I believe in getting a fair shake,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any way that you can look at this case and see justice was carried out.”

This case has often been cited as one of the most egregious examples of racism in the history of the United States and was revisited in the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Devil in the Grove.”

In 1949, a 17-year-old white woman and her estranged husband told police that she’d been kidnapped and raped by four black men after the couple’s car broke down outside Groveland, in Lake County. Sheriff Willis McCall arrested the four men, even though Charles Greenlee, 17, was arrested in a separate incident 20 miles away when the alleged rape occurred and said he didn’t know the other three men.

Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin told police they had stopped to help the couple but denied assaulting Norma Padgett. After being beaten by police in the county jail, both Greenlee and Shepherd confessed. Ernest Thomas escaped but was murdered two days later by a posse of 1,000 men who shot and killed him while he slept under a tree in Madison County.

After Thomas’ murder, the other three men were convicted by all-white juries. Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to death, and Greenlee was given a life sentence. In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a retrial. Seven months later, while the sheriff was taking Shepherd and Irvin to a court hearing, he pulled over and shot the two men on the side of the road. Shepherd died, but Irvin pretended to be dead. The sheriff said they had tried to escape, but Irvin said they were shot while they were handcuffed to each other and lying on the ground.

Despite the evidence, Irvin was convicted again and given another death sentence. In 1955, Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence to life in prison, and he was paroled in 1968. Irvin was found dead in his car the next year. Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012.

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The families of Greenlee, Irvin, Shepherd, and Thomas attended the hearing on Friday, with some family members electing to speak in front of the Clemency Board.

“We all know how things were back then,” Wade Greenlee, the younger brother of Charles, said. He traveled from Jacksonville to Tallahassee in order to defend his older brother at the hearing. “All you had to do was be black. The reason we’re here today, is because Irvin didn’t die. God allowed him to live to tell the story.”

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Thomas and Carol Greenlee, two of Charles’ children, also made the trek to Tallahassee for the hearing.

“He was clearly convicted by a person who just said he did it. The climate of those times—that’s all they need,” Thomas Greenlee told the board. “He wasn’t there for birthdays. He wasn’t there to help with homework. He just was not there. You put someone into a situation where you not only affect him, but the whole family.”

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Carol Greenlee also made it a point to mention that when she would ask her father about the trial, he always maintained that he didn’t know the other three men who were his purported accomplices.

“The evidence was in the record,” she said. “He was accused, put in jail and tortured.”

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But it was Beverly Robinson, cousin of Samuel Shepard, who opted to speak directly to the accuser, Norma Padgett. After citing a letter written by Padgett’s niece, Robinson revealed that the Padgett family had collectively decided to protect the secret—that the rape never occurred.

“It never happened, Miss Padgett,” Robinson said. “You and your family are liars.”

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Compelled to defend her character, Padgett was then wheeled to the microphone.

“I’m the victim of that night. I tell you now, that it’s been on my mind for 70 years,” she said with her sons by her side. “I was 17 years old and it’s never left my mind. I’m begging y’all not to give the pardons because they did it. If you do, you’re going to be just like them.”

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While the hearing was intended to only serve as a forum to discuss the case, Gov. Ron DeSantis surprisingly called for a vote—which unanimously ruled in favor of a pardon.

“I believe in the principles of the Constitution. I believe in getting a fair shake,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any way that you can look at this case and see justice was carried out.”

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In 2017, the Florida Legislature unanimously passed a bill requesting former Gov. Rick Scott to pardon the Groveland Four, but he refused to do so without explaining his stance.

“Rick Scott didn’t have the guts,” Wade Greenlee said. “He could have done this with a stroke of a pen years ago. Gov. DeSantis didn’t waste any time.”

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“You can hold the truth down for so long, but eventually it will come out,” Carol Greenlee added. “My father used to tell me all the time that you may get tired, but don’t quit. He said that is what kept him going.”

While the Greenlee family can finally savor Charles’ long overdue vindication, they explained that they have every intention to continue to seek out justice for other black men who’ve been unjustly incarcerated.

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“My father would have asked the question: ‘Who would it help?’ ” Carol Greenlee said. “It took 70 years to get here. We will go into the prisons, into schools and communities and give them hope.”