After being wrongly accused in 1949 of having raped a 17 year-old girl under gunpoint, a group of black men called the “Groveland Four” were exonerated by a Florida courtroom. 

The four men –  Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas – who ranged in age from 16 to 26 – had been accused by Norma Padgett in 1949 and sparked a manhunt throughout the small town of Groveland, a town 30 miles west of Orlando.

Black residents were subject to racist violence. A mob hunted down Thomas, and shot him 400 times. Shepherd died two years later, while being taken to his rape trial by police officers.  

The 72-year-old case was finally settled by Administrative Judge Heidi Davis dismissing the indictments against Thomas and Shepherd. Both were killed in the aftermath of the allegations. 

Members of the Groveland Four had been pardoned previously by Florida Clemency Board in 2019, which was headed by Governor Ron DeSantis. However, they weren’t formally exonerated.

Families of both men were thrilled to hear the verdict. They hope that it will allow for a reexamination on wrongly charged black women and men from the same period.

A group of four black men known as the 'Groveland Four' which included Walter Irvin (left), Samuel Shepherd (center), Charles Greenlee (right) and Ernest Thomas (not pictured) were exonerated on Monday after they were wrongly accused of raping a 17-year-old girl in 1949

After being wrongly accused in 1949 of having raped a 17 year-old girl, a group of black men called the “Groveland Four” (left), Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee (right), Ernest Thomas was exonerated Monday.

Norma Padgett, who was 17 at the time, had claimed the four men had abducted and raped her at gunpoint while she was on the way home from a dance with her husband in Groveland, Florida

Norma Padgett was just 17 years old when she claimed four men had taken her hostage and raped the victim as she was returning from a Groveland party with her husband.

Family members of the four men attended the hearing where the case had been dismissed by Administrative Judge Heidi Davis

The hearing was attended by the families of all four men.

Following Padgett’s allegations, Thurgood Marshall (lawyer and activist for civil rights) took the case of the men. 

Padgett claimed Padgett and her men had taken Padgett from her while Padgett drove her home after a night out with her husband.

This led to a manhunt, as well as a wave racist violence towards other black residents.

Thomas was killed by a mob who had shot him four hundred times following the allegations.

Shepherd was shot and killed by Willis McCall, a local sheriff. He was driving Irvin and Shepherd to the second trial.

Because not enough evidence was presented, the US Supreme Court overturned both men’s convictions.

McCall also shot Shepherd in the back, but Irvin was not hurt. 

McCall claimed the men tried to flee, but Irvin said they were killed by Irvin and his deputy. 

Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall had fatally shot Shepherd and injured Irvin after he claimed they tried to escape before their second hearing

Willis McCall, Lake County Sheriff had shot Shepherd to death and Irvin injured when he said they attempted escape prior to their second hearing. 

Shepherd (left) and Irvin (right) lie on the roadside near Umatilla, Florida after they were shot by McCall

McCall killed Shepherd and Irvin in Umatilla (left). They were found lying by the roadside, near Umatilla. 

Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court, had helped with the Groveland Four case

Thurgood Marshall was the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court. He had assisted with the Groveland Four case.

At Irvin's second trial, he had been sentenced to death after being found guilty on the charges of rape. He later escaped the penalty and was then sentenced to life on parole.

He was sentenced after he was convicted of the charges. He was able to escape the death penalty, and was sentencing himself to life without parole. 

Marshall represented Irvin before the judge convicted him and sentencing him to death.

Irvin was able to escape execution, and his sentence was reduced by Governor LeRoy Collins. He is now free on parole. He later died in 1969.

In 1962, Greenlee was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was buried in 2012. 

In 2017, Florida’s Legislature apologized in writing to the husbands and their families.  

The case was reviewed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in 2018. The agency had earlier this year referred the case to Bill Gladson, State Attorney. Gladson has since reviewed it.

Gladson and an investigative interviewed Jesse Hunter’s grandson, who was now the deceased prosecutor against two Groveland Four offenders. 

Broward Hunter, the grandson of the victim, said his grandfather was a judge who knew that 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 because of the sheriff’s involvement in an illegal gambling operation. 

Norma Padgett had attended the 2019 board meeting where she still claimed that she had been raped and abducted by the Groveland Four boys

Norma Padgett attended the 2019 board meeting, where she claimed she was still raped by the Groveland Four boys.

Shepherd was suspected to also be part of the gambling enterprise. Willis could have seen a case for rape as a way to ‘get some people that were on s— lists,’ Hunter said to Hunter.  

Gladson said also that James Yates who testified as primary witness was likely to have fabricated evidence.

The prosecutor also had Irvin’s pants sent to a crime lab in September to test for semen, something that was never done at Irvin’s trial, even though jurors were given the impression that the pants were stained. According to the motion, there was no evidence that Irvin had semen.

Gladson made the following statement in support of his motion: “The importance of this finding cannot overstated.”

Padgett is now 89 and attended the board meeting in 2019. She still believes that she was raped and abducted by the four men.

The board was told by her, “Y’all just don’t know the horror I’ve gone through over all these years,” she said.

They are not to be pardoned.

She hasn’t commented on recent developments despite being openly vocal about her involvement in the case.  

Thurgood Marshall Jr., in addition to their families, was present at the hearing.

Marshall said that Marshall believed better days would come, despite the fact his father was ‘haunted by’ the trial.

The case was reviewed again by State Attorney Bill Gladson who pursued evidence to prove that the four men were not formally guilty

Bill Gladson, the State Attorney of New York, reviewed the case again and sought evidence to show that they were not guilty.

Greenlee's daughter Carol speaks at a press conference after her father was exonerated

After her father’s exoneration, Greenlee’s daughter Carol spoke at a press conference

Eddie Irvin, the nephew of Walter, also spoke at the conference

Eddie Irvin was also a speaker at the conference. He is Walter’s nephew.

Gilbert King, the author of Devil in the Grove (2012): Thurgood Marsh, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America won him a Pulitzer Prize, was present with him at the hearing. 

King stated that having men exonerated at the same place as the trial was important because there was an upstairs courtroom in which 72 years ago, an abomination to justice was committed. Gladson was praised by King for his pursuit of justice.

King stated that King could have simply thrown this case away and had someone else handle it. 

“Even though it became frustrating for him and felt that there wasn’t any way forward, he continued to work hard.

Gladson stated after the hearing, “We followed the evidence and saw where it took us.”   

Families of both men expressed concern about the verdict, as they felt that justice was being served seventy years after it began.

We are blessed. Aaron Newsom’s nephew Thomas said that it was an opportunity to start.

This opportunity was not available to many families. Perhaps they will. The country must come together.  

Charles’s child Carol Greenlee felt relieved when she heard that the charges against her father had been dropped. 

According to NBC, she said, “If something feels right, be bold.” ‘Be persistent.’  

On the Lake County Courthouse’s lawn, there was an erected monument honoring the Groveland Four. The bronzed photograph shows the four men.         

Vivian Shepherd, niece of Sam Shepherd (left), Gerald Threat, nephew of Walter Irvin (center), and Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee (right) at the 2020 unveiling of the Groveland Four memorial

Vivian Shepherd is the niece and nephew of Sam Shepherd. Gerald Threat is the nephew of Walter Irvin. Carol Greenlee is the daughter of Charles Greenlee.