Joe Burbank / AP
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla .– A judge formally exonerated four young African-American men on Monday of the false accusation of raping a white woman seven decades ago, making partial and belated amends for one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in the Jim Crow era in Florida.
At the request of the local prosecutor, Administrative Judge Heidi Davis dismissed the charges of Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd, who were shot by law enforcement, and quashed the convictions and sentences of Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin . The men known as the Groveland Four, who were between 16 and 26 at the time, were charged with raping a woman in the town of Groveland, central Florida, in 1949.
“We followed the evidence to see where it took us and it got us to this moment,” said Bill Gladson, the local state attorney, following the hearing in the same courthouse in the Lake County where the first trials were held. Gladson, a Republican, asked last month to officially exonerate the men.
The men’s families have said the case may trigger a review of other convictions of black men and women of the Jim Crow era so those falsely convicted can have their names cleared.
“We are blessed. I hope this is a start because a lot of people haven’t had this opportunity. A lot of families haven’t had this opportunity. Maybe they will,” said Aaron. Newson, Thomas’s nephew. He burst into tears as he spoke. “This country needs to come together.”
Thomas was killed by a group who shot him more than 400 times shortly after the rape charge. Local sheriff Willis McCall shot Shepherd and injured Irvin in 1951 while leading them to a second trial after the United States Supreme Court overturned their original convictions, saying no evidence had been presented . The sheriff claimed the men tried to escape, but Irvin said McCall and his deputy shot them in cold blood.
Gilbert King, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2012 book on 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 ., the son of the late United States Supreme Court Justice.
Thurgood Marshall Sr., then a member of the NAACP, represented Irvin in his second trial, but an all-white jury again found him guilty and he was sentenced to death. Irvin narrowly escaped execution in 1954 and Governor LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence to life in prison with parole. Greenlee, also sentenced to life, was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012. Irvin died in 1969, a year after his parole.
King said that exonerating the men in the same building where the trials took place was “of significant importance because upstairs there was a courtroom where 72 years ago (a) abomination of justice has taken place “. He praised Gladson for pursuing justice.
“He could have easily shelved this business and let someone else take care of it,” King said. “Even when it got frustrating and he felt there was no way to that day, he dug harder.”
Marshall Jr. said that, perhaps more than any other case, the Groveland Four “haunted” his father.
“But he believed better days were ahead,” Marshall Jr. said.
The Florida legislature in 2017 formally apologized to the families of the men. Governor Ron DeSantis and the three-member cabinet of state granted posthumous pardons more than two years ago. In 2018, then Attorney General Pam Bondi asked the State Department of Law Enforcement to review the case. Earlier this year, the agency returned its findings to Gladson for review.
Gladson and an investigator interviewed the grandson of Jesse Hunter, the now deceased prosecutor for two of the Groveland Four defendants. According to the grandson, Broward Hunter, his grandfather and a judge in the case knew there had been 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 due to the sheriff’s involvement. in an illegal gambling operation. Shepherd was also suspected of being involved in the gambling operation, and Willis could have viewed a rape case as “a way to get certain people who were on his list,” Hunter told the prosecutor and investigator. .
Gladson also said that James Yates, an assistant who served as the primary witness, likely fabricated evidence, including shoe casts.
The prosecutor also had Irvin’s pants sent to a criminal lab in September for semen testing, which was never done at Irvin’s trial, although jurors felt the pants were stained. . The results showed no evidence of semen, according to the motion.
“The importance of this discovery cannot be overstated,” Gladson said in his motion.