Those who have been pushing for the exoneration of the “Groveland Four,” including Mayor Tim Loucks and Lake County Commissioner Sean Parks, are hoping to meet with Governor Rick Scott within the next several weeks. Loucks, who vowed to continue pursuing justice for the men of the Groveland Four, believes that Scott is interested in reviewing the case.
The Groveland Four consists of Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas, who were all accused and convicted of raping Norma Padgett, a white woman, in 1949. On the morning following the alleged rape, after Thomas fled Lake County, he was tracked down, shot, and killed by then-Sheriff Willis McCall and other members of a deputized posse. In addition, Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd were beaten in the county jail’s basement. Although there was no physical evidence in the case, Greenlee, who was a juvenile, was sentenced to life in prison, and Shepherd and Irvin received the death penalty.
While Shepherd and Irvin were being transported from the Florida State Prison to the Lake County Jail, McCall claimed that he was jumped by the two handcuffed men and shot them three times. Shepherd died immediately and according to Irvin, he survived by playing dead. Following the incident, despite Irvin accusing the sheriff and his deputy of attempted murder, no charges were ever filed.
NAACP special counsel Thurgood Marshall petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the death penalty verdicts in November 1951. Irvin was retried and sentenced to death after being convicted a second time, but in 1954 the sentence was commuted to life in prison. In 1962, after serving 12 years in prison, Greenlee was paroled. Irvin was paroled in 1968. He was found dead in his car, however, while visiting Lake County, and there were doubts about the circumstances surrounding his death. Greenlee died in April 2012 at the age of 78.
Despite a Florida Senate resolution asking for the exoneration of the Groveland Four failing to pass during this legislative session, Lake County formally gave its support to an exoneration effort for the group on March 15, calling the men’s 1949 rape convictions a travesty and an injustice. During the city of Groveland’s council meeting on February 16, Loucks issued a similar proclamation.
The families of Greenlee, Irvin, Shepherd, and Thomas not only say that exoneration would bring closure to what has been a difficult part of their history, but also that the evidence in the case does not add up. Loucks commented on the uncertain circumstances of the case, stating that there was no doubt the men were beaten and tortured and that the shooting that occurred was very questionable.
Vivian Shepherd, Samuel Shepherd’s niece, stated that although she is not angry about what happened to her uncle, it has been difficult to find closure, which would only come if the Groveland Four’s names were cleared. She believes in the men’s innocence and wants justice, but also wishes to speak with Padgett so she can forgive her, ask her why, and share with her the families of the Groveland Four’s side of the story.
Gilbert King, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Groveland Four and Marshall, Devil in the Grove, also wrote that there was no physical evidence that a rape took place. He cited multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct and a few inconsistencies in the prosecutor’s timeline of events, stating that all the physical evidence looked like it had been faked and that Padgett’s testimony was sufficient enough for the jury to hand down the convictions. He also wrote about a doctor who was supposed to testify in the case that found no evidence that Padgett was raped in the medical report, but was never called by the prosecution.
Ric Ridgway, chief assistant state attorney for the 5th Circuit, could not comment on the case’s specific details, but he did say that a case is not as strong if there is no physical evidence of a sexual assault, and that other evidence would be needed to compensate for it. A criminal defense attorney running for Lake County judge, Benjamin Boylston, agreed with Ridgway, stating that a case can be weakened due to a lack of physical evidence if the situation is expected to have that kind of evidence available, such as if a rape is reported immediately after it allegedly occurred. He added that even if the victim is telling the truth, a number of factors could make it less likely that there would be physical evidence.
Ridgway stated that the court system is extremely different today than it was in 1949, citing multiple changes, including DNA, an appeal process for reviewing defense counsel’s effectiveness, and more sophisticated jurors.
Although Scott’s office has declined repeated attempts to issue any new comments on the Groveland Four case, they referenced their comments made on March 1, which declared that they would follow the clemency process and review any case brought in front of them.