Lake County Sheriff McCall

From the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory: This shows Lake County Sheriff McCall and shooting victims. In 1951, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Lee Irvin were shot by Sheriff Willis McCall while being transported from Raiford to Lake County. McCall said they had attacked him. Walter Irvin survived and accused McCall of forcing them from the vehicle in which they were being transported and shooting them down.

The drumbeat of voices calling for pardon of the Groveland Four can be heard in recent days, and the sound is coming from both Democrats and Republicans.

Florida’s incoming agriculture commissioner, Democrat Nikki Fried, on Dec. 17 said she would bring up the case at the next Florida Cabinet meeting. Two days later, Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio called on Florida officials to formally pardon the men during a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Then, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, also Republican, asked that the case be brought before the clemency board.

Now Florida’s incoming governor wants to consider a pardon for the four young Black men who were wrongly accused of raping a white woman nearly 70 years ago.

Republican Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis said in a statement last Thursday he would make the cases of the Groveland Four a priority at the first meeting of the Florida Cabinet next month. The cases are considered among the greatest miscarriages of justice during Jim Crow-era Florida.

“Seventy years is a long time,” DeSantis said. “And that’s the amount of time four young men have been wrongly written into Florida history for crimes they did not commit and punishments they did not deserve.”

Florida’s outgoing governor Rick Scott and other Republicans on the state clemency board have refused to take up the pardon request, even though the Florida Legislature last year formally apologized and asked for a pardon.

The Florida Senate formally apologized on April 26, 2017 to the families of the four Black men in a case now seen as a racial injustice. The Florida House issued the same apology the week before. Both votes were unanimous.

“We cannot go back to this terrible event and undo it, but we can acknowledge our wrongs and we can bring peace and healing and closure to the families who have suffered for so long,” Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer, who sponsored the resolution said at the time.

MISCARRIAGE OF JUSTICE

Their ordeal began in Lake County in 1949, when a 17-year-old said she had been raped. Three of the men were arrested and severely beaten; a fourth, Ernest Thomas, fled.

A posse of about 1,000 men was formed to hunt down Thomas. He was shot 400 times when they found him sleeping under a tree. White residents also formed a mob and went to a black neighborhood, burning houses and firing guns into homes in a disturbance that took days to quell.

Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd were convicted despite dubious evidence. Other evidence that could have exonerated them — such as a doctor’s conclusion that the teen probably wasn’t raped — was withheld at their trial. Greenlee was sentenced to life, and Irvin and Shepherd to death.

Thurgood Marshall, later the first Black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, took up Irvin and Shepherd’s appeals for the NAACP, and in 1951 the U.S. Supreme Court ordered new trials.

Just before those trials began, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot Irvin and Shepherd, claiming the handcuffed men tried to escape as he transferred him from prison to a jail. Shepherd died. Irvin was shot in the neck and survived despite an ambulance refusing to transport him because he was black. He was again convicted, even though a former FBI agent testified that prosecutors manufactured evidence against him.

Charges were never brought against any white law enforcement officers or prosecutors who handled the cases.

Irvin was paroled in 1968 and found dead in his car while returning to Lake County for a funeral a year later.

Greenlee was paroled in 1960 and died in 2012.

The resolutions don’t call for any financial compensation, but Farmer said they take an important stand.

“I know that the families of Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas are looking at us today with great appreciation,” Farmer said at the time. “They’ve lived a long time with this indignity and this injustice, this grave miscarriage of justice, and today we take a large step on their behalf.”

Greenlee’s daughter Carol was at the Capitol when the House issued its apology and said there was a time her father questioned what good could come from talking about his case.

“My father said to me years ago, ‘If it doesn’t help anybody, just forget it. Let the past be in the past,‘” said Greenlee at the time. “When I look around and I see all of the people who have read the book and have come forth and said, ‘This is not right; this is wrong,’ my father’s question was answered. It is helpful and it will continue to be helpful. And that makes me feel good.”

The Groveland Four’s story was recounted in Gilbert King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Devil in the Grove.”

The clemency board consists of the governor and three other elected officials. Outgoing Florida Attorney General on Wednesday also asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review the cases as a step toward clearing their names posthumously.

“Justice was miscarried for the Groveland Four beginning with events set in motion in 1949,” DeSantis said. “Though these men now lie in graves, their stories linger in search of justice.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Load comments