In this undated image released by the State Library and Archives of Florida, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, far left, and an unidentified man stands 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. AP File Photo
A judge in Florida has finally exonerated the “Groveland Four,” the African American men falsely accused of raping a White teenager in 1949.
“Wow, it’s been a long time coming,” Gerald Threat, the nephew of Walter Irvin, stated in a news conference following the judge’s ruling on Monday, November 22.
“This Thanksgiving, we can have an entirely different atmosphere without this hanging over our head,” Irvin stated.
Carol Greenlee, the daughter of Charles Greenlee, said, “My father was a caring, loving, compassionate person that did not rape anybody.”
Administrative Judge Heidi Davis dismissed the indictments of Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd, both fatally shot not long after the false allegation made by Norma Padget, who was 17 at the time. Judge Davis then set aside the convictions and sentences of Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin. The men who became known as the Groveland Four ranged from 16 to 26 at the time.
“We followed the evidence to see where it led us, and it led us to this moment,” state attorney Bill Gladson remarked during the news conference.
Following the 1949 accusation, the Ku Klux set fire to numerous Black neighborhoods in the town of Groveland. The Klan reportedly shot Thomas more than 400 times, killing him. They beat false confessions out of Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd.
An all-White jury convicted the men, but legendary NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall successfully fought for a new trial.
Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot and killed Shepherd, claiming he attempted to escape.
During the retrial, jurors still returned a guilty verdict, but Greenlee and Irvin were given life sentences instead of the death penalty. Officials granted Irvin his release from the state prison in 1968. He died one year later of a heart attack at age 39.
Charles Greenlee, the last surviving member of the Groveland Four, was released on parole in 1962 and moved to Nashville, Tennessee. He died on April 18, 2012, at 78.
Independent investigations determined that all four were innocent, and in 2017, the state issued an apology to their families.
In 2019, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis granted the men pardons, but family members continued their fight to clear their names fully.