Circuit Court Judge Heidi Davis in Lake County, Florida, approved the state’s motion to posthumously dismiss the indictments of Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd, and Charles Greenlee and Walter Irwin in the case known as the “Groveland Four”. vacated the sentence.
“I will not hate, but I will love and embrace all those who did not know at the time that my father was a caring and loving and kind man who never raped anyone. I am here today to say thank you I’m standing,” he said. An emotional Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee, in front of cameras at a news conference Monday morning after the court hearing.
In 1949, Greenlee, Irwin, Shepherd, and Thomas were accused of sexually assaulting Norma Padgett in Groveland, Florida, about 30 miles west of Orlando. The group became known as the “Groveland Four”. The case was considered one of the largest miscarriages of justice in Jim Crow-era Florida.
There was doubt from the start about Padgett’s testimony, but in the Jim Crow era, a jury convicted the men without evidence of a crime.
“The family has been living with it for 72 years and traveling along this journey looking forward to today,” state attorney Bill Gladson said after Monday’s hearing. Gladson, a Republican, moved last month to officially acquit the men. None of the men are still alive.
Gladson said the state sought justice after receiving new evidence.
“Once we got that evidence, and that revealed what it revealed, that resulted in the motion that you see today,” he said.
State Sen. Randolph Bracey, a Democrat, said while the exemption “doesn’t fix the racial injustice that is so pervasive in our criminal justice system,” the proposal gave the family some closure and some hope.
“I believe that by reconciling with the past and rectifying gross injustices, we are well on our way to creating a more equal court system,” he said.
In 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a full posthumous clemency to the men.
“For seventy years, these four men have written their histories wrongly for crimes they did not commit. As I have said before, while it is a long time to wait, in doing the right thing It’s never too late,” DeSantis said in a statement at the time. “I believe the rule of law is the sacred bond of society. When it is trampled upon, we all suffer. For the Groveland Four, the truth was buried. The criminals celebrated. But that day Justice has cried ever since.”
Florida House issued a posthumous apology to the Groveland Four in April 2017.
“As a state, we’re really sorry,” Representative Chris Sprouls told the men’s families after lawmakers unanimously voted to exonerate them.
“The memories cannot be erased, the pain they have endured cannot be fixed, but today we have an opportunity to close these families as an apology,” said Rep. Bobby Dubos, who sponsored the bill. asked for his pardon.
A decade long chapter of injustice has finally closed
Padgett claimed that his car broke down in Groveland on the night of July 16, 1949. She said that the four men stopped and raped her. The men were arrested. Three of them were tortured until the police were able to get a confession from two of them. Thomas, who managed to escape from custody, was killed after a search. Greenlee was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Shepherd and Irwin received the death penalty. While being taken from the county jail for a trial, the sheriff shot them both and claimed self-defense. Shepherd died on the spot and Irwin survived playing dead. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment in prison.
“We need courage,” Ernst Thomas’ nephew Aaron Newson said in tears in front of cameras today after the court hearing. “Many families didn’t get this opportunity, might get it. Maybe it’s the beginning of something good. I hope so. This country needs to come together.”
Granthshala’s Diane Gallagher contributed to this report.
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