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Racism

Florida posthumously pardons the Groveland Four, black men accused of dubious 1949 ‘rape’. One was shot 400 times by white posse

  • Medical evidence that the rape of a white teenager never took place was suppressed at the trial
  • One suspect was killed by a posse, while two others were shot by a sheriff while they were in custody awaiting retrial
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 January, 2019, 2:20am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 January, 2019, 3:16am

Florida has granted posthumous pardons to four African-American men accused of raping a white woman nearly 70 years ago in a case now seen as a racial injustice.

The unanimous decision by the clemency board, which was composed of Governor Ron DeSantis and members of the independent cabinet, came minutes after the alleged victim, now in her 80s, pleaded with the board not to grant the pardons, saying she still relives the horror of the rape she said happened in 1949.

But many now doubt the attack ever took place.

DeSantis said the case against the men known as the Groveland Four was clearly mishandled.

“The way this was carried out was a miscarriage of justice,” DeSantis said.

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The ordeal began in Lake County in 1949, when the then-17-year-old said she had been raped. Three of the men were arrested and severely beaten; a fourth, Ernest Thomas, fled.

A white posse of about 1,000 men was formed to hunt down Thomas. He was shot 400 times when they found him sleeping under a tree. White residents also formed a mob and went to a black neighbourhood, burning houses and firing guns into homes in a disturbance that took days to quell.

Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd were convicted despite dubious evidence. Other evidence that could have exonerated them – such as a doctor’s conclusion that the teen probably wasn’t raped – was withheld at their 1949 trial. Greenlee was sentenced to life, and Irvin and Shepherd to death.

Thurgood Marshall, later the first African-American justice on the US Supreme Court, took up Irvin and Shepherd’s appeals for the NAACP, and in 1951 the US Supreme Court ordered new trials.

But just before those trials began, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot Irvin and Shepherd, claiming the handcuffed men tried to escape as he transferred him from prison to a jail.

Shepherd died. Irvin was shot in the neck and survived despite an ambulance refusing to transport him because he was black. He was again convicted, even though a former FBI agent testified that prosecutors manufactured evidence against him.

Charges were never brought against any white law enforcement officers or prosecutors who handled the cases.

Irvin was paroled in 1968 and found dead in his car while returning to Lake County for a funeral a year later.

Greenlee was paroled in 1960 and died in 2012.

In 2017, the state House and Senate voted unanimously to formally apologise to the men’s families and asked then-Governor Rick Scott to pardon them. He took no action. DeSantis replaced Scott as governor on Tuesday.