Three young Black men and a Black teenager were at the center of a trial in Groveland, Florida that resulted in violence and wrongful imprisonment. What the Groveland Four experienced would show how racism seeped into the legal system and perverts justice to the point where justice is never truly achieved for the wronged.
THE GROVELAND FOUR
If you’ve read several articles here about race riots or wrongful arrests and imprisonment, this story will sound very familiar. In July 1949, a White Florida woman, Norma Padgett accused three Black men and a Black boy of rape.
The thing is some in the group didn’t even know each other until they were arrested by Groveland authorities. The accused included Ernest Thomas (25), Sam Shepherd (22), Walter Irvin (22), and Charles Greenlee (16). Shepherd and Irvin—both military veterans were drinking and Greenlee was in another town entirely. Collectively they would come to be known as “The Groveland Four.”
They were beaten in an attempt to get confessions with Greenlee and Shepherd giving false statements and Irvin refusing. Thomas escaped the county to get away from a White mob of 1,000. He was eventually shot to death, hit by 400 bullets. The town had to be routed to prevent the deaths of the three remaining suspects.
The riled up mob headed into the Black area of Groveland and harassed the citizens there as well as destroyed property. It was suggested that the Black people in town leave until the riot simmered down resulting in a near exodus. The National Guard was eventually called in, but not to prevent the riot in the Black section. Their presence did calm the scene.
The grand jury didn’t go well for Shepherd, Irvin, and Greenlee as all three were indicted. Both Greenlee and Shepherd informed the FBI that their confessions were forced and that they had been beaten.
Looking into the situation, the FBI found photograph evidence that the Lake County Sheriff’s office beat the suspects for the confession. Unfortunately, justice would elude them as a U.S. Attorney failed in legal action against the department.
In court, photograph evidence, Norma Padgett’s physician, and the federal investigation into the beatings were held back by the prosecution. Fake evidence that favored the prosecution was presented. This prevented the defense from accessing them for the case and allowed the prosecution to keep the guilty verdicts chances high.
Shepherd and Irvin got death sentences by Greenlee was given life. Young Greenlee declined appeal since the death penalty would be on the table if it went to trial again. Irvin and Shepherd would get another trial in 1951 after the Supreme Court found that Black people were excluded from the jury.
Towards the end of 1951, a leader of the NAACP’s Florida office, Harry T. Moore pushed for Sheriff McCall to be booted from his position. Moore and his wife would be killed on Christmas night by a bomb planted by the KKK.
A CLOSE CALL
The two were heading to Tavares for their retrial in November 1951 when their police escort pulled over. Sheriff Willis McCall shot the two men, killing Shepherd. Irvin played dead but was shot against when Deputy James Yates arrived. Irvin managed to survive. He would tell the FBI what actually happened while McCall said that he was ambushed by the two. Again this wasn’t shown to the jury and a coroner sided with McCall. The Groveland Four was down two and only one maintained his innocence.
Moved from Lake County to Marion County, Irvin’s re-trial started in February 1952 with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall defending Walter Irvin. It wouldn’t be enough as Irvin was again sent to the death house. Another appeal met the same result. Two years later, the Supreme Court turned the case down.
Unable to get Irvin out of prison, Marshall focused on getting his sentence commuted. Using the strength of Florida’s religious community, he was able to have Governor LeRoy Collins commute Irvin’s sentence 1955. Collins said that the state of Florida didn’t have the most concrete case against Irvin to warrant the death penalty.
Walter Irvin was eventually released in 1968. He was found dead in Lake County in his car two years later. His death was viewed as suspicious as McCall was still sheriff. It was written off as natural causes.
The members of KKK responsible for killing Harry T. Moore and Harriette Moore in 1951 were revealed in 2005 after a state investigation. Earl Brooklyn and Tillman Belvin died of natural causes in 1952. Edward Spivey all died of cancer in 1978 and rolled on Joseph Cox. Unable to deal with the interrogation about the bombing, Cox killed him in 1952.
Willis McCall remained sheriff until 1972 and would have several legal run-ins for a variety of Civil Rights violations. He died in 1994 and never served a minute in jail for his acts. McCall was honored with a road in 1985 until it was changed in 2007.
In 1962 Charles Greenlee was released and was the only one living of the accused in the end. Late April 2017 saw the state of Florida issued an apology to the families of the Groveland Four. It occurred decades later and only after several lawmakers had to push for it.