Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state Cabinet gave long-sought pardons Friday to members of the “Groveland Four” in one of the most-notorious cases from Florida’s Jim Crow era.
The unanimous vote was intended to bring peace to the families of the four African-American men and was urged by leaders of the community where a series of injustices happened seven decades ago.
The vote by DeSantis and the Cabinet, sitting as the state clemency board, came amid emotional and accusatory testimony from descendants of the African-American men accused in 1949 of raping a white woman in Lake County and the woman herself who remained emphatically opposed to the pardons.
Attorney General Ashley Moody said the action wasn’t about the victim but “righting a wrong of 70 years ago.”
“By anyone’s judgment of this case, due process and the norms that we have that protect liberties of people now in today’s law and in our justice system were not afforded to these defendants,” Moody said.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who restarted the push for the pardons in December, said she was proud of her colleagues and that the vote “marks progress and resolution on an undeniable injustice of the past.” Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis also voted for the pardons.
The posthumous pardons were approved for Earnest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin.
Thomas was killed by a posse in Madison County after the rape accusation. The three other men were beaten to coerce confessions before they were convicted by an all-white jury.
Greenlee, at 16, was given a life sentence. Shepherd and Irvin, both U.S. Army veterans, were sentenced to death. Shepherd and Irvin were later shot, with Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall claiming the two handcuffed men tried to flee while being transported to a new trial that had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court due to adverse pretrial publicity. Shepherd died. Irvin survived and told the FBI he was shot in cold blood.
Then-Gov. Leroy Collins commuted Irvin’s sentence to life in prison. Irvin was paroled in 1968 and died a year later. Greenlee, released from prison in the early 1960s, died in 2012.
Carol Greenlee, daughter of Greenlee, said “a burden has been lifted.”
“It’s like waking up out of a nightmare, out of a terrible dream,” Carol Greenlee said. “This is a true vindication of my father.”
Greenlee’s son Charles Greenlee cried as he said after the hearing that “justice has been served.”
“My father was 16. He was beaten. He was put in prison for a crime he never committed,” Charles Greenlee said. “His only crime was to be black in the state of Florida.”
Charles Greenlee said something may have happened to Norma Padgett Upshaw on July 16, 1949, but his father wasn’t involved.
Padgett Upshaw, surrounded by her sons and other family members, rejected the accusatory comments by a relative of Shepherd’s during the hearing that she was “a liar”
“You all just don’t know what kind of horror I’ve been through for all these many years,” Padgett Upshaw said. “I know she called me a liar, but I’m not no liar. If I had to go to court today, I could tell the same story that I told than.”
She also remained firm that the four men were the ones involved.
“I’m begging you not to give them pardons because they done it,” Padgett Upshaw said. “If you do, you’re going to be just like them.”
DeSantis took office Tuesday, replacing former Gov. Rick Scott, who did not take action after an April 2017 legislative resolution requesting the state clear the men.
DeSantis, an attorney, said the pardon was more about the actions of Lake County officials and the state criminal justice system.
“You’d like to think that in America no matter what passions or prejudices may be on the outside of a courtroom, that when you actually get in that courtroom that it’s the law applied to the facts without passions or prejudices that will decide your fate,” DeSantis said. “And I don’t know that there is any way you could look at this case and think that those ideals of justice were satisfied. Indeed, they were perverted time and time again.”
DeSantis also praised current Lake County officials who urged the pardon.
“I think it says a lot about them that they’re willing to look back at this and acknowledge that this was not right,” DeSantis said.
Lake County Property Appraiser Carey Baker, a former state lawmaker, said the four men couldn’t get “true justice” because the process at the time “was so egregiously flawed” and the “actions of local law enforcement so terrible.”
Lake County Commission Chairwoman Leslie Campione said due process was denied for the four men because of the “brutality” of McCall and other local officials.
“History reflects the facts of abuse of power by our Lake County officials at the time,” Campione said. “By taking this action today, we’re able to acknowledge the rights that are guaranteed to us by the U.S. Constitution --- at that point in history --- they were denied.”
--- News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.