The Groveland Four pardoned after 70 years, their deaths

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  were charged with rape in 1949. Courtesy of Associated Press

Four black men were pardoned Friday after 70 years of being accused of raping a white 17-year-old girl in Groveland, Florida.

In 1949, Charles Greenlee, Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin — the Groveland Four — were accused of raping Norma Padgett.

On Friday, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency met and voted to pardon the Groveland Four in Tallahassee, said Kelly Corder, a Florida Commission on Offender Review spokesperson.

“While this act cannot right the wrongs done to them many years ago, I hope that it will bring peace to their families and to their communities,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during the meeting.

Not everyone in attendance wanted to see the men pardoned. Padgett, who attended with her family, told the board she still believed the four men raped her.

“I’m begging y’all not to grant them pardon because they done it,” Padgett said to the board.

None of the Groveland Four were alive to know they were pardoned.

Thomas was shot hundreds of times by a mob before the trials. After he was found guilty by an all-white jury, Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to the electric chair.

In 1951 before a retrial, Sheriff Willis V. McCall shot them. Shepherd was killed, but Irvin survived and was found guilty at the trial, according to the Associated Press. He was paroled in 1968 and found dead in his car in 1969.

Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison but served about 10 years before he was paroled in 1960, the AP said. Greenlee died in 2012.

Carol Greenlee, 69, Greenlee’s daughter who was in attendance with Shepherd’s family, said as a child she felt her dignity was taken away because her father was in jail.

“I felt like a wrecking ball was lifted off of me,” Greenlee told The Alligator. “I felt like the jail doors swung open for me and my family.”

In 2015, Josh Venkataraman, then a 21-year-old UF telecommunication junior, started an online petition to exonerate the four. He amassed 9,760 signatures over about four years. Although the men haven’t been exonerated, he says he is happy to see them pardoned.

“It was just surreal,” Venkataraman said. “Within the near future, it sounds like an exoneration is possible.”

In December, former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review the case for exoneration, said FDLE spokesperson Gretl Plessinger.

The department of law enforcement will determine the facts and then a court will decide whether to wipe the charges from the four’s records, Plessinger said.

“My emotions ran through the whole course of it yesterday, so it’s hard to even fathom how an exoneration would be like, ” Venkataraman said.

Contact Katherine Wallace-Fernandez at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter@katwf98.