A judge on Monday officially exonerated the Groveland Four of the false accusation that the young Black men raped a white woman 70 years ago, partial and belated amends for one of the greatest miscarriages of justice of the Jim Crow era in Florida.
At the request of a local prosecutor, administrative judge Heidi Davis dismissed the indictments of Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd, who were fatally shot by law enforcement, and set aside the convictions and sentences of Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin.
The four, who ranged in age from 16 to 26, were accused of raping a woman in the central Florida town of Groveland in 1949.
“We followed the evidence to see where it led us and it led us to this moment,” said Bill Gladson, the local state attorney, after the hearing in the courthouse where the original trials were held. Gladson, a Republican, moved last month to have the men officially exonerated.
The men’s families hoped the case might spark a re-examination of other convictions from the Jim Crow era.
“We are blessed. I hope that this is a start because lot of people didn’t get this opportunity. A lot of families didn’t get this opportunity. Maybe they will,” said Aaron Newson, Thomas’s nephew, breaking into tears as he spoke.
“This country needs to come together.”
Thomas was killed by a posse that shot him more than 400 times. The local sheriff, Willis McCall, fatally shot Shepherd and wounded Irvin in 1951 as he drove them to a second trial after the US supreme court overturned their original convictions, saying no evidence had been presented. The sheriff claimed the men tried to escape. Irvin said McCall and his deputy shot them in cold blood.
Gilbert King, who won a Pulitzer prize for his 2012 book about the case, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America, attended the hearing with Thurgood Marshall Jr, son of the late supreme court justice.
Thurgood Marshall Sr, then with the NAACP, represented Irvin during his second trial, but an all-white jury again convicted him and he was sentenced to death. Irvin narrowly escaped execution and Governor LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence to life with parole. Greenlee, also sentenced to life, was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012. Irvin died in 1969, a year after he was paroled.
King said having the men exonerated in the building where the trials were held was “of significant importance because upstairs there was a courtroom where 72 years ago [an] abomination of justice took place”. He also praised Gladson for pursuing justice.
“He could have easily kicked this case down the road and let someone else deal with it,” King said. “Even when it got frustrating and he felt there was no path toward this day, he dug in harder.”
Marshall Jr said that the Groveland Four “haunted” his father.
“But he believed better days were ahead,” Marshall Jr said.
In 2017, the Florida legislature formally apologized to the men’s families. In 2018, the then attorney general, Pam Bondi, directed the state department of law enforcement to review the case. In 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis and the state’s three-member cabinet granted posthumous pardons. Earlier this year, the state agency referred its findings to Gladson.
Gladson and an investigator interviewed the grandson of Jesse Hunter, the now-deceased prosecutor of two of the Groveland Four defendants. According to the grandson, Broward Hunter, his grandfather and a judge knew there was no rape.
The grandson also suggested to Gladson, based on letters he found in his grandfather’s office in 1971, that Willis may have shot Shepherd and Irvin because of the sheriff’s involvement in an illegal gambling operation.
Shepherd was believed to be involved with the gambling operation too, and Willis might have seen a rape case as a “a way to get some people that were on his shit list”, Hunter said.
Gladson also said James Yates, a deputy who served as a primary witness, probably fabricated evidence including shoe casts.
The prosecutor had Irvin’s pants sent to a crime lab in September to test for semen, something not done at Irvin’s trial, even though jurors were given the impression that the pants were stained. The results showed no evidence of semen, the motion said.
“The significance of this finding cannot be overstated,” Gladson said in his motion.
Groveland Four exonerated 70 years after false rape accusation in Florida