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Nearly 70 Years Later, ‘Groveland Four’ May be One Step Closer to Exoneration

By Andrew Giacalone

In a long-overdue gesture of remorse for the wrongful convictions of four young men in Lake County, Florida, nearly 70 years ago, local officials presented the men’s family members with a proclamation in support of their posthumous exonerations, the South Lake Press reported yesterday.

In 1949, Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas—who were black— were accused and convicted of raping a 17-year-old white woman in the city of Groveland, located approximately 30 miles west of Orlando. No physical evidence linked them to the crime scene.

The men—who became known as the Groveland Four—were immediately subjected to racially motivated brutality. Upon arrest, three of the men were physically beaten by law enforcement; Thomas was shot and killed by a posse after he fled the area. Greenlee was eventually sentenced to life in prison; Shepherd and Irvin were both sentenced to die.

While being transported between the county jail and the local prison for a retrial, both Shepherd and Irvin were shot by the county sheriff in what author John Hill would later describe as “cold blood.” Shepherd died. Irvin survived, reports the South Lake Press, because he “played dead.” The sheriff was not charged with any crime in relation to the shooting.

The arrests and allegations against the men also reportedly sparked widespread mob violence against local black residents and black-owned businesses, ultimately requiring the deployment of the National Guard to subdue the unrest and spotlighting the dangers endured by black citizens across the segregated South.

“Our resolution can’t make up for the pain and persecution the Groveland Four endured 67 years ago, but it will lift up the surviving family members and let [them] know we are sorry this happened in our community,” Commission Chairman Sean Parks told the families of the four men as he issued the proclamation on Tuesday.

The accusations against the Groveland Four were dubious from the beginning, according to the Orlando Sentinel. The paper, in fact, notes that author Gilbert King’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, includes a number of documents indicating there was no evidence of a sexual assault to begin with. Nevertheless, Irvin, who died in 1969, would languish for 21 years in prison. Greenlee, who died in 2012, lost 12 years of his life in prison, an innocent man.

Following the issuance of the proclamations, Groveland Mayor Tim Loucks is now expected to push the State of Florida to exonerate the men outright.

“It seems things are moving toward our ultimate goal for the state to exonerate my father and the others,” said Carol Greenlee, Greenlee’s daughter, to the Orlando Sentinel in February. “It’s very encouraging and I’m very, very, very happy to hear this.”

 

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