Photo credits: Laura B. Williams Designs
A court successfully exonerated four young Black men of the false claim that they raped a white lady seven decades ago on Monday (November 22).
This was a partial and long-overdue atonement for one of the most heinous miscarriages of justice during the Jim Crow period in Florida. Administrative Judge Heidi Davis withdrew the charges against Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd, who were fatally shot by police and a white racist gang.
Judge Davis also vacated the convictions and sentences of Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin, at the request of the local prosecutor. The Groveland Four were young guys ranging in age from 16 to 26 years old at the time. They were ultimately charged with the rape of a white lady in Groveland, Florida, in 1949.
The relatives of the men expressed hope that this case will prompt a review of additional Jim Crow-era convictions of Black men and women, allowing wrongfully convicted people to have their records expunged. Following the public revelation of the rape allegation, Thomas was slain by an all-white mob. The enraged, racially motivated whites fired approximately 400 rounds into his body during their fits of deadly cruelty.
Shepherd was slain and Irvin was injured in 1951 while being transported to a retrial by the local sheriff, Willis McCall. Due to a lack of evidence, their initial convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court. According to the sheriff, the young guys attempted to flee, but McCall and his deputy shot them in cold blood, according to Irvin.
As a member of the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall Sr. defended Irvin in his second trial. An all-white jury, however, convicted him guilty once again. Irwin was given the death penalty. In 1954, he nearly avoided the electric chair. Governor LeRoy Collins, on the other hand, saved his life. Irwin’s sentence was changed to life in prison with the possibility of release. Greenlee, who was also sentenced to life in prison, was released in 1962 and died in 2012.
In 1969, Irvin was released from prison and died a year later.
In 2017, the Florida Legislature issued an official apology to the men’s families. More than two years ago, Governor Ron DeSantis and the state’s three-member Cabinet awarded posthumous pardons. Pam Bondi, Florida’s then-Attorney General, asked the state’s Department of Law Enforcement to launch an investigation into the situation in 2018. The agency delivered its findings to Gladson for assessment earlier this year.
Gladson and an investigator interrogated the grandson of Jesse Hunter, the Groveland Four’s now-deceased prosecutor. Broward Hunter’s grandson said that both his grandpa and a judge involved in the case were aware that no rape had occurred.
In addition, the grandson indicated to Gladson that Willis shot Shepherd and Irvin in punishment for the sheriff’s participation in an illegal gambling operation, based on letters found in his grandfather’s office in 1971. Willis may have seen an opportunity in inventing a rape case since Shepherd was suspected of gambling.
Gladson also claimed that crucial witness subordinate James Yates faked evidence, including shoe casts. In September, the prosecution submitted Irvin’s pants to a crime lab for semen testing, which was never done during his trial — regardless of the fact that jurors were led to believe the pants were filthy.
The tests discovered no physical evidence of seminal fluid, according to the petition.