Free Minds & Free Markets

70 Years After They Were Wrongly Imprisoned, the Groveland Four Have Been Pardoned

The criminal justice system failed four black men after a white woman accused them of rape.

|||Everett Collection/NewscomEverett Collection/NewscomNearly 70 years ago, four black men in Lake County, Florida, were accused and convicted of raping a white woman. Today, Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Earnest Thomas have received posthumous pardons from the state.

The men, commonly referred to as the "Groveland Four," were accused of raping a 17-year-old in 1949. Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd were beaten into confessing after their arrest. According to the Innocence Project, documents from the case revealed that there was no evidence of a sexual assault. In addition to the documents, no physical evidence of the men's involvement was presented in court, including a medical examination of the accuser.

After the first trial, Greenlee received a life sentence while the others were sentenced to death. A mob of 1,000 men hunted down Thomas and shot him over 400 times. The arrests also prompted white residents to commit violent acts against a black neighborhood, including burning down houses and shooting guns into homes of black residents.

Thurgood Marshall, who was with the NAACP at the time and would eventually become the first black Supreme Court justice, secured new trials on appeal for Irvin and Shepherd. While being transported for the second trial, Irvin and Shepherd were shot after Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall said they attempted to escape. Irvin survived and disputed McCall's account, telling the FBI he was shot without provocation. He survived despite being denied an ambulance ride because of his skin color. Shepherd died of his injuries. McCall, meanwhile, was re-elected five times after the incident.

A former FBI agent who testified on Irvin's behalf said prosecutors manufactured evidence. Despite this, Irvin was convicted a second time for the rape.

Both Greenlee and Irvin were eventually paroled. Greenlee, who was paroled in 1960, died in 2012. Irvin, who was paroled in 1968, was found dead in his car in 1969.

In 2017, the Florida legislature passed a measure that formally apologized to the Groveland Four and asked former Gov. Rick Scott to perform an "expedited clemency review of their cases" and "grant full pardons." Historians have long held that the men were wrongfully convicted.

The state clemency board handed out posthumous pardons on Friday.

While no charges were brought against the prosecutors or local law enforcement, the family was able to confront accuser Norma Padgett, 86, in court. Padgett asked that the men not be pardoned. Beverly Robinson, Shepherd's cousin, called Padgett a liar in court. Robinson claimed that she read a story written by Padgett's niece indicating that the accusations were false.

Newly elected Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statement on the pardons.

"For seventy years, these four men have had their history wrongly written for crimes they did not commit," DeSantis said. "As I have said before, while that is a long time to wait, it is never too late to do the right thing. I believe the rule of law is society's sacred bond. When it is trampled, we all suffer."

Photo Credit: Everett Collection/Newscom

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    The criminal justice system failed four black men after a white woman accused them of rape.

    What about the failure of us marginalizing a woman's experience of being raped? Which is the bigger injustice here?

  • Uncle Adolf’s Gas and Grill||

    It's Injustice all the way down!

  • Bearded Spock||

    Seriously. So we're not believing all women anymore?

    I wish the folks at #MeToo would put out a guide to help us know when evidence matters and when a victim's word is absolute.

    Or maybe Robby can write a column explaining why the accuser is not truthful in this case.

  • buybuydandavis||


  • Vernon Depner||

    Notice that the state is not saying that the boys didn't rape Padgett. A pardon is not an admission that the accused were innocent. It's only a decision that the convicted should suffer no further consequences and the matter should be officially overlooked from now on. We should take this as an apology from the state for the extra-judicial violence against the convicts, not as a repudiation of Padgett's story.

  • Dillinger||

    ist gut.

    >>>McCall, meanwhile, was re-elected five times after the incident.

    Six-Toe County.

  • AlgerHiss||

    That hog-jaw Sheriff, Willis McCall, has left quite a fitting product of his loins. His son, 62 year old Douglass McCall, is currently in custody for molestation and kidde porn charges:

  • Mongo||

    The Ladybot of Reason sez:

    Four Blacks equals a gang! Whatever happened to commonsense math?? SMH

  • Mongo||

    Then Ladybot follows with a nonsensical response to its own comment :

    * that should be McConnell not McConald

  • Bearded Spock||

    You forgot the link to the blog.

  • Ray McKigney||

    Just wait until the White Knight bot gets here to chastise you. Then you'll be sorry.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Read the room, Florida. You couldn't have picked a worse time, and I don't just mean because the victims are already dead.

  • Uncle Adolf’s Gas and Grill||

    It's never too late to virtue signal!

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    By "victim" you mean the woman who was raped? That's not a monument we should be tearing down.

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    What the hell?!?! They were woke enough in 1949 to believe a woman victim, and now they repudiate her? What the fucking fuck?!?!?!?

  • Tony||

    I think you'll find many cases in Southern history where a mere rumor of a pure pearlescent female being defiled by a black man is enough justification to brutally murder the accused and burn their neighborhood to the ground. It was practically a regional pastime.

  • Agammamon||

    Of course it was Tony. #IBelieveHer - you don't remember your support of that just a few months ago?

  • Tony||

    I suppose the difference between a lynching and a high-tech lynching is that you get to be on the supreme court after the latter.

  • Fancylad||

    So you finally acknowledge that they were both lynchings.

    Whether 1949 or 2019, the Democrats are gonna Democrat.

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    Yep. White women back then we're so racist, they loved going around bragging about the Alabama black snake, rape or no.

    It was every weekend.

  • KevinP||

    Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall was a Democrat. He was finally defeated in 1972 by a Republican.

  • Fancylad||

    It was always Democrats.

    Whenever some horrific racial outrage was being perpetrated, the national (not just the South) Democratic Party was the ones doing it.
    For example the Trail of Tears, Popular Sovereignty, Bleeding Kansas, Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, the White League and Red Shirts, Wilmington insurrection, Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, Tammany Hall, Disenfranchisement, Poll Taxes, Federal Civil Service Segregation, Margaret Sanger and the Eugenics Movement, Executive Order 9066, Orval Faubus, "Bull" Connor, Birmingham, George Wallace, Selma, blocking the Civil Rights Act of 1964, War on Poverty, Housing Projects, Planned Parenthood Ethnic Targeting, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera....
    Always the Democrats.

    Not even the Italian fascists reached their level. In the West, only the German National Socialists and the South African National Party ever really topped them.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    Pardons are declarations of guilt, not innocence. See Burdick v. United States, 236 U.S. 79 (1915)

  • Ray McKigney||

    You make a good point. Why no exonerations, eh?

  • Vernon Depner||

    Apparently the intent is to apologize for the extra-judicial killings, not for the convictions.

  • StackOfCoins||

    "Today, Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Earnest Thomas have received posthumous pardons from the state."

    Posthumous anything is small fucking comfort for dead men.

    "It's never too late to do the right thing"

    Nice try.

  • Eddy||

    "Posthumous anything is small fucking comfort for dead men."

    ...and I promptly thought of a dirty joke. How sick.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||


  • Deconstructed Potato||

    OT: what a vile, hateful, disease of a person Angela Davis is.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Weird how, for 70 years, no Democratic governor of Florida ever did that.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online