Righting a Florida wrong: Groveland Four pardoned after nearly 70 years

By: - January 11, 2019 4:28 pm

Three of the Groveland Four. Left to right: Sheriff Willis McCall, jailer Reuben Hatcher, Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, and Samuel Shepherd. Not pictured: Ernest Thomas, killed earlier by law enforcement. Library of Congress photo, published in the book “Devil in the Grove.”

Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee of the Groveland Four, gets hugs after her deceased father is pardoned by the state’s clemency board. Photo by 
Diane Rado

In a travesty of justice that has marred Florida’s history, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state’s clemency board gave pardons Friday to the “Groveland Four” –black men wrongly accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman in Lake County in 1949.

The action taken after nearly 70 years came in dramatic fashion in the state Capitol, with tears for the now-deceased men; an accusation of lying made against the family of the alleged rape victim, and the alleged victim herself, now in her late 80s, who begged the board not to give the pardons.

Supporters of  the four men – Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas – made a case that the men should be pardoned after all these years.

Carol Greenlee, the daughter of Charles Greenlee, said her father wasn’t even in the area when the alleged incident occurred.

Yet, “He was accused, put in jail, tortured, for something that he did not do,” Greenlee said.

The woman who accused the men, Norma Padgett Upshaw, came before the clemency board in a wheelchair and was surrounded by family members as she addressed the state’s top officials.

“Every time it comes up. I just quiver on the inside,” said Upshaw, now in her 80s. “You all just don’t know what kind of horror I’ve been through for all these years.”

That didn’t sway the clemency board.

Numerous investigations, law enforcement reports and other documents show that the men were innocent, said Charles Greenlee’s daughter Carol.

The case spurred a non-fiction book, Devil in the Grove, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Author Gilbert King spoke at the clemency board meeting on Friday.

“The Groveland Four were denied their voices 70 years ago, because of a shameful criminal justice system that existed in Florida and throughout the Jim Crow South,” King said.

“We are a better state and a better country today, because collectively, we no longer tolerate gross perversions of justice like this.”

When Beverly Robinson, the cousin of wrongly accused Samuel Shepherd, went up to the podium to speak to the clemency board, she looked into the audience at the Padgett family members and told them, “You are all liars.”

Norma Padgett Upshaw said that was not the case. “I’m the victim of that night,” she told the board. “It’s been on my mind for about 70 years.”

The clemency board is comprised of DeSantis, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

And it was that board that finally gave the posthumous pardons, though past governors and clemency boards could have pardoned the men years ago.

In the spring of 2017, lawmakers approved a resolution saying the Legislature acknowledged “that Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas, the Groveland Four, were the victims of gross injustices and that their abhorrent treatment by the criminal justice system is a shameful chapter in this state’s history,” according to a synopsis of the case by the state House of Representatives.

“The Legislature also extends a heartfelt apology to the families of Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas for the enduring sorrow caused by the criminal justice system’s failure to protect their basic constitutional rights.”

The resolution urged the Legislature, governor and Florida Cabinet to expedite review of the four men’s cases as part of their constitutional authority to grant clemency, including granting full pardons.

At the time, Gov. Rick Scott and members of the clemency board did not act.

But at Friday’s meeting, DeSantis called the situation a “shameful chapter” in Florida and the clemency board unanimously approved the pardons.

“For seventy years, these four men have had their history wrongly written for crimes they did not commit,” DeSantis said in a statement after the vote. “As I have said before, while that is a long time to wait, it is never too late to do the right thing. I believe the rule of law is society’s sacred bond. When it is trampled, we all suffer. For the Groveland Four, the truth was buried. The perpetrators celebrated. But justice has cried out from that day until this. I would like to thank CFO Patronis, Attorney General Moody and Agriculture Commissioner Fried for their support.”

Accolades from others streamed in after the decision.

“Today is long overdue for the Groveland 4 and their families,” Florida’s Democratic Party chair Terrie Rizzo said.

Florida Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson said:  “A great injustice has finally been corrected…It is my hope that this pardon brings some solace to the families of these four men, and helps heal the wounds that have lingered for far too long.”

After the clemency board meeting, Greenlee family members met with reporters to discuss the decision.

Carol Greenlee said the family’s goal is to erase the allegation that her father was a rapist and to clear his name. Though the board pardoned all four men, the Greenlee family hopes for a full exoneration, which is different from a pardon that forgives guilt for Florida convictions.

Wade Greenlee, Charles’ brother, was only seven when his brother was accused of rape, and the family had already gone through a tragic situation when his two sisters were killed by trains. In the 1940s, the Lake County area was known to have Ku Klux Klan members, he said.

Still, his parents taught their children, “not to hate, to love,” Wade Greenlee said.

The Greenlees said that they forgave the Padgett family long ago.

When asked why then- Gov. Scott didn’t pardon his brother several years ago, Wade Greenlee said, “He didn’t have the guts.”

Here are the details of the Groveland Four case, from a Florida House of Representatives synopsis in April 2017:

On July 16, 1949, a 17-year-old white woman and her estranged husband reported to police that she had been abducted at approximately 2:30 a.m., driven about 25 minutes to a dead-end road, and raped by 4 black men after the car in which she and her estranged husband were riding broke down on a rural road outside Groveland in Lake County.  Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, and Samuel Shepherd were charged with rape, while Ernest Thomas was presumed guilty of the crime.

Charles Greenlee, who was sixteen years old in July 1949, was being detained 20 miles away by two retail store night-watchmen at about the same time as the attack was alleged to have occurred; the alleged rape victim’s husband stated on 2 separate occasions that Mr. Greenlee was not one of the young men present when the car broke down on July 16, 1949; and, Mr. Greenlee denied that he and Mr. Thomas ever met Mr. Shepherd, Mr. Irvin, the alleged victim, or her estranged husband.  

Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd, both World War II veterans, acknowledged that they had stopped by the broken-down vehicle to see if they could assist the couple, but denied any involvement in the alleged rape.

After their arrest that evening, Mr. Greenlee, Mr. Irvin, and Mr. Shepherd were severely beaten in the basement of the county jail. Mr. Greenlee and Mr. Shepherd were coerced into confessing to the crime while Mr. Irvin steadfastly maintained his innocence despite repeated beatings.

Ernest Thomas, understanding the racial realities of the time and the danger he was in, escaped Lake County before law enforcement could locate him. When he was located by an armed, deputized posse, in the woods of Madison County, Florida, Mr. Thomas was shot as he slept beside a tree.  

Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, and Samuel Shepherd, were tried and convicted of rape. Mr. Greenlee was sentenced to life imprisonment due to his young age, and Mr. Irvin and Mr. Shepherd were sentenced to death. 

The judge who presided at the men’s trial denied their attorneys access to an exculpatory medical report of the alleged rape victim and barred testimony regarding the three men being repeatedly and brutally beaten by law enforcement officers. 

Thurgood Marshall, then Executive Director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, appealed the convictions of Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd to the United States Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned the judgments on April 9, 1951, and ordered a retrial. 

Seven months later, on November 6, 1951, as Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd were being transported by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall from Florida State Prison in Raiford to Tavares Road Prison for a pretrial hearing, the sheriff pulled over on a dirt road and shot both men, claiming the handcuffed men were trying to escape.  Samuel Shepherd died at the scene as a result of his wounds.

During an interview with an investigator sent by then Governor Fuller Warren, Walter Irvin stated that, after he had been shot twice by the Sheriff, Deputy Sheriff James L. Yates shot him through the neck as he lay on the ground handcuffed to the deceased Samuel Shepherd.

The FBI later discovered a .38-caliber bullet directly beneath a blood spot marking where Walter Irvin lay, providing forensic corroboration of Mr. Irvin’s statement that he was shot while lying on the ground.

Walter Irvin, who pretended to be dead, survived despite a delay in treatment caused by the hospital’s refusal to transport him in an ambulance due to his race.

Mr. Irvin was retried and convicted a second time for the alleged rape and was sentenced to death, despite the fact that a former FBI criminologist stated that he believed forensic evidence had been manufactured by law enforcement.

Mr. Irvin’s sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1955 by then Governor LeRoy Collins after the prosecuting attorney, who twice convicted Mr. Irvin, stated in a letter that not only was a life sentence more appropriate, but that Mr. Irvin maintained his innocence even after being shot when he believed himself to be dying.

Walter Irvin was found dead in his car while visiting Lake County for a funeral in 1969, 1 year after being paroled by then Governor Claude Kirk.

Charles Greenlee, who was paroled in 1960 at the age of 27, died in April 2012 at the age of 78.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.