In 1949 in Groveland, Fla., four men—Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Ernest Thomas—were wrongly convicted of raping 17-year-old Norma Padgett in Groveland. Three of the men were imprisoned and another was shot and killed by a group of white men. They became known as the Groveland Four.
On Wednesday, Florida lawmakers voted unanimously as sponsors of H.C.R. 631 (pdf), which seeks to give the men a posthumous exoneration and asks for immediate pardons.
“This resolution, while seemingly minute, symbolizes the great state of Florida looking those families in the eyes—families, with children, who grew up not knowing their fathers but only knew their records,” said state Rep. Bobby DuBose (D-Fort Lauderdale), a sponsor of the bill. “This resolution is us simply saying, ‘We’re sorry’—understanding we will never know or make up for the pain we have caused.”
From the Miami Herald:
The four men were accused of raping 17-year-old Norma Padgett in Groveland. Padgett, along with her estranged husband, told police that on the night of July 16, 1949, their car had broken down just outside of town. They claimed that four black men stopped, got out of their car and then raped her.
Sheriff Willis McCall arrested Thomas, World War II veterans Irvin and Shepherd, and Greenlee, a new father who had traveled to Lake County seeking work in a citrus grove. Within days, Thomas escaped from the county jail and fled only to be captured by a posse and killed in Madison County—after being shot multiple times.
The other three were beaten in jail to coerce confessions. The three survivors were convicted at trial by an all-white jury. Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death and Greenlee, only age 16, was convicted to life in prison.
Family members of the deceased were on hand at the House chamber during the announcement. Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee, thanked lawmakers.
“Thank you for releasing my family from prison. From releasing my nieces. My son. My brothers from the dark cloud, the shame and the stigma,” Greenlee said.