Four Young Black Men Falsely Accused Of Rape Over 70 Years Ago Now Exonerated
Relatives of the Groveland Four | Photo by Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Four young Black men have been officially exonerated of the false charges that they raped a young white woman over 70 years ago. 

On Monday, Florida Circuit Judge Heidi Davis cleared the four men after State Attorney Bill Gladson filed a motion to exonerate them last month in what he said was “a complete breakdown of the criminal justice system.”

Judge Davis dismissed the indictments of Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd, who were shot and killed by law enforcement officers, and cleared the convictions and sentences of Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin.

The men known as the Groveland Four, who ranged in age from 16 to 26 at the time, were accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman in the central Florida town of Groveland in 1949.

“We followed the evidence to see where it led us and it led us to this moment,” said Gladson, following the hearing in the same Lake County courthouse where the original trials were held. 

According to the Associated Press, the families of these men said that they are hopeful this case will spark a reexamination of other convictions of Black men and women from the Jim Crow era so those falsely convicted can have their names cleared. 

“We are blessed. I hope that this is a start because a lot of people didn’t get this opportunity. A lot of families didn’t get this opportunity. Maybe they will,” said Aaron Newson, Thomas’ nephew.  “This country needs to come together.”

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The Groveland Four were arrested in July of 1949 following the accusations of sexual assault. Shortly after the rape accusation, Thomas was slain by a crowd who shot him over 400 times. 

Willis McCall, the local sheriff, fatally shot Shepherd and wounded Irvin in 1951 as he drove them to a second trial after the United States Supreme Court reversed their first convictions, citing a lack of evidence. According to the sheriff they tried to escape, but Irvin claims McCall and his deputy shot them in cold blood.

After surviving that incident, Irvin was again convicted and sentenced to the death penalty during a second trial by an all-white jury. His sentence was commuted in 1954, he was paroled in 1968, and he passed away in 1969, just one year after his release. Greenlee, who was paroled in 1962, died in 2012.

In 2017, the Florida Legislature formally apologized to the men’s families. Gov. Ron DeSantis issued posthumous pardons to the Groveland Four about two years ago.

Gilbert King, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2012 book “ Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America” about the case, attended the hearing with Thurgood Marshall, Jr. the son of the late Supreme Court Justice. 

According to the AP, King said that having the men exonerated in the same building where the trials were held was “of significant importance because upstairs there was a courtroom where 72 years ago [an] abomination of justice took place.” He praised Gladson for pursuing justice. 

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