Groveland Case

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The Groveland Case refers to events related to four young African-American men being accused of raping a young white woman in Groveland, Florida on July 16, 1949. One man was shot by a posse several days later and 200 miles away after having fled the area. The other three were quickly arrested and interrogated under torture to coerce confessions; one resisted. Each had denied being in the area of the alleged rape. They were convicted by an all-white jury; one was sentenced to life as he was 16 years old and a minor at the time of the crime; the other two were sentenced to death by electric chair.

In 1949, Harry T. Moore, the executive director of the Florida NAACP, organized a campaign against the wrongful conviction of the three African Americans. Two years later, the case of two defendants reached the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal, with Thurgood Marshall as their defense counsel. The court overturned the convictions and remanded the case to the lower court for a new trial. Soon afterward, Sheriff Willis V. McCall of Lake County, Florida, shot Irvin and Shepherd in November 1951 while they were in his custody, killing Shepherd and seriously wounding Irvin. He claimed they had tried to escape. Moore called for the governor to suspend McCall. On Christmas night 1951, a bomb went off below Moore's house, fatally wounding both him and his wife; he died that night and she nine days later.

At the second trial, Irvin was represented by Thurgood Marshall, special counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Irvin was convicted, again by an all-white jury, and sentenced to death. In 1955 his sentence was commuted to life by the Florida governor. In 1968 he was paroled; he died the next year. Greenlee had been paroled in 1962 and lived to 2012, getting to be with his family. In April 2017 all four men were exonerated by action of the Florida House of Representatives and Senate. The city of Groveland and government of Lake County issued formal apologies in the case in 2016.

Case details[edit]

On July 16, 1949, Norma Padgett, a 17-year-old Groveland, Florida white woman, accused four black men of rape, testifying that she and her husband were attacked when their car stalled on a rural road near Groveland. The next day, 16-year-old Charles Greenlee, Sam Shepherd, and Walter Irvin were arrested and put in jail pending trial. Ernest Thomas fled the county and avoided arrest for several days.

A Sheriff's posse of more than 1000 armed men, found, shot and killed Thomas about 200 miles northwest of Groveland in Madison County, following a lengthy chase through the swamps.[1] County Sheriff McCall was in the area when Thomas was killed, but a coroner's inquest was unable to determine exactly who killed the suspect.

McCall had been out of the state when Greenlee, Irvin and Shepherd were arrested. He returned to Lake County the following day. As word spread about the accusation of rape and subsequent arrest of three of the "Groveland Boys", an angry crowd gathered at the county jail. The crowd demanded that McCall turn the men over to them. Just moments before, McCall had hidden Shepherd and Irvin in a nearby orange grove, then had them taken to Raiford State Prison for their safety. After allowing Padgett's husband and father to search the jail, McCall promised the mob that he would see that justice was done and urged them to "...let the court handle this calmly."[citation needed]

With Shepherd and Irvin out of harm's way, the mob looked for a new target. They turned on a black section of Groveland, a small town in south Lake County where two of the accused and their families lived. The men drove to Groveland in a caravan and once they arrived, shot into the tavern owned by the mother of Ernest Thomas, and hurled insults at any blacks they found. On the third day, fearing an escalation of mob and Ku Klux Klan violence, McCall and several prominent businessmen in the area warned most of the black residents to leave town until things settled down, which most did. McCall called in the National Guard, but pulled troops away from the black section of Groveland.

After that, the mob moved in and proceeded to burn Shepherd's house and two others to the ground.[2] The presence of the National Guard halted the destruction caused by the rioters; but they were not satisfied. Cockcroft, the leader of the riot, revealed the mob's intentions when he told a reporter, "The next time, we'll clean out every Negro section in south Lake County." [3]

A grand jury indicted the three remaining rape suspects. Shepherd and Greenlee separately later told FBI investigators that the deputies beat them until they confessed. Irvin refused to confess, despite also being severely beaten. An FBI investigation concluded that Lake County Sheriff's Department deputies James Yates and Leroy Campbell were responsible for the beatings, and agents documented the physical abuse with photographs. The Justice Department urged the U.S. Attorney in Tampa to file charges, but U.S. Attorney Herbert Phillips was reluctant, and failed to return indictments.

Once the trial began, the prosecution did not bring the alleged confessions into evidence, fearing that a higher court would overturn guilty verdicts on the grounds of coerced confessions. Shepherd and Irvin claimed they were in Eatonville, Florida, drinking that night. Greenlee claimed to be nowhere near the other defendants on that night, and said that he had never met the other defendants until he was arrested and taken to the same jail in Tavares, Florida.

The physician who examined Norma Padgett was not called to the witness stand by the prosecution, and Judge Truman Futch did not allow the defense to call him. A forensics expert for the defense testified that the footprint casts were fraudulently manufactured by Deputy James Yates (Yates was indicted years later in another footprint case when another deputy admitted that Yates had fraudulently manufactured shoeprint evidence and an FBI investigation confirmed the plaster casts were faked. But before Yates could be tried, the statute of limitations had expired).

The three men were each convicted. Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death. Greenlee, because of his age, was sentenced to life in prison. Greenlee never appealed his conviction, as he faced receiving the death penalty in the future should another jury find him guilty again.

Appeals and aftermath[edit]

In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Lake County's verdict on the grounds that blacks had been improperly excluded from the jury; it remanded the case to the lower court, ordering a new trial. But Justice Robert Jackson was more critical of the prejudicial pretrial publicity, which included MCall's bragging to the press about the prisoners' confessions (which were coerced by physical abuse.) In his concurring opinion, Justice Jackson wrote, "The case presents one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to American justice."[citation needed]

In November 1951, McCall was transporting Shepherd and Irvin from Raiford to Tavares for the retrial, when he pulled his car off the state road leading into Umatilla, a small town in Lake County, claiming tire trouble. McCall swore in a deposition that Shepherd and Irvin attacked him in an escape attempt when he let them out of the car so that Shepherd could relieve himself. McCall claimed that he shot both the prisoners in self-defense. Shepherd was killed on the spot, but Irvin played dead and survived his wounds, despite being shot three times. When Deputy James Yates arrived at the scene, he observed that Irvin was still alive and shot him again.

The next day in his hospital room, Irvin told FBI investigators and the press that McCall shot them without provocation, as did Yates. Irvin claimed that Yates fired the sixth and last bullet into his neck, while Irvin was lying wounded on the ground. In his book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (2012), author Gilbert King examined the unredacted FBI files from the case; he writes that the FBI located a .38 caliber bullet buried ten inches in the ground beneath Irvin's blood spot—evidence that supported Irvin's version of the shooting.[page needed]

The Lake County Coroner's inquest was never given the FBI reports. The coroner concluded that McCall had acted in the line of duty, and Judge Truman Futch claimed that he saw no need to impanel a grand jury. The re-trial of Irvin was moved from Lake County to Marion County (the next county to the north), because of the extensive publicity around the case.

It began in February 1952, after Irvin had recovered from the shooting. Before the trial, Prosecutor Jesse Hunter offered Irvin a deal: if he pleaded guilty to the rape of Padgett, the state would not seek the death penalty. Irvin refused, saying that he did not rape her and would not lie. He was defended by national NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall (who later was appointed as an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court).

The trial attracted international coverage; newspapers in the Soviet Union pointed to the trial as evidence that American blacks were not free. New evidence was presented, but the all-white jury found Irvin guilty, after a short deliberation of 90 minutes. Judge Futch sentenced Irvin to death. The case was appealed again, but the conviction was upheld by the Florida State Supreme Court. In early 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear the case.

After promising Irvin's mother that he would not let her boy die in the electric chair, Marshall sought relief outside the courts. He organized a committee of religious leaders to apply pressure on newly elected Governor LeRoy Collins, who in 1955 personally reviewed the case. He commuted Irvin's sentence to life in prison. After conducting his own investigation, Collins said that "the State did not walk that extra mile--did not establish the guilt of Walter Lee Irvin in an absolute and conclusive manner."[citation needed]

Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and lived until 2012, having a second child with his wife and getting to be with his family. He lived to see Gilbert King's book about the case published in 2012. Irvin was paroled in 1968. In 1970, he visited Lake County. He was found dead in his car, officially of natural causes. Marshall had some doubts.[citation needed]

Push for exoneration[edit]

Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, filed a proposed resolution (SCR 136) for consideration during the 2016 legislative session. The proposal was to clear the names of Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas and note the “egregious wrongs” perpetrated against the men by the criminal justice system. The resolution said the men had alibis but were still arrested for the alleged attack. An online petition on, started by UF senior Joshua Venkataraman, and extensive media coverage, including an article by nationally syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. in the Miami Herald, supported exoneration of the four.[4]

On April 18, 2017, the Florida House of Representatives passed a resolution exonerating the four men and apologizing to their families for the racial injustice of the case.[5] The Senate passed a similar resolution. Lawmakers also called on Florida Governor Rick Scott to officially pardon the men.

Harry T. Moore bombing[edit]

Harry T. Moore, executive director of the Florida NAACP, demanded in 1951 that McCall be indicted for murder following the Groveland rape case, and requested that the Governor suspend him from office. Six weeks after calling for McCall's removal, Moore and his wife were killed by a bomb that exploded under their bedroom in Mims in Brevard County on Christmas night 1951. Rumors alleged that McCall was behind the bombing. However, an extensive FBI investigation at the time, and additional separate investigations in 1978, 1991, and 2005 did not affirm any evidence of McCall's involvement.

The Florida State Archives contain several letters that Moore wrote to Florida governors calling for McCall to be removed from office and prosecuted for allowing nightriders to burn down houses and terrorize black citizens in and around Bay Lake, Florida after the arrests of four men accused of raping a white woman in the summer of 1949. NAACP leaders, including Thurgood Marshall and Franklin Williams, expressed their thoughts that McCall was somehow involved in Moore's murder.

In 2005, a new investigation was launched by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to include excavation of the Moore home in a search of forensic evidence to aid the investigation. On August 16, 2006, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist announced his office had completed its 20-month investigation, resulting in the naming of four now-dead suspects, Earl Brooklyn, Tillman Belvin, Joseph Cox and Edward Spivey. All four had a long history with the Ku Klux Klan, serving as officers in the Orange County Klavern. Although members of the Ku Klux Klan were suspected of the crime, the people responsible were never brought to trial.[6]


  1. ^ King, Gilbert. "Chapter 9: Don't Shoot, White Man," Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, New York: Harper, 2012
  2. ^ PBS - Freedom Never Dies: The Story of Harry T. Moore, Florida Terror: Groveland - Introduction, PBS
  3. ^ King (2012). "Chapter 7: Wipe This Place Clean," Devil in the Grove pp. 92-93
  4. ^ Pitts, Leonard Jr. (September 26, 2015). "Leonard Pitts Jr.: "Groveland," an injustice that has never been corrected". Miami Herald. Retrieved April 19, 2017.
  5. ^ Mettler, Katie (April 19, 2017). "'We're truly sorry': Fla. apologizes for racial injustice of 1949 'Groveland Four' rape case". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 19, 2017.
  6. ^ PBS - Freedom Never Dies:" The Story of Harry T. Moore" - Florida Terror - Groveland - Introduction, 2000. Retrieved May 20, 2007