The Groveland Four (or the Groveland Boys) were four young African-American men: Earnest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, who were accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman in Lake County, Florida in 1948.
Thomas was killed as a suspect by a posse after leaving the area; Greenlee, Shepherd and Irvin were beaten while in jail to coerce confessions, but Irvin refused to confess falsely. The three survivors were each convicted at trial by an all-white jury; Greenlee was sentenced to life because he was only 16 at the time of the event; the other two were sentenced to death. A retrial was ordered by the United States Supreme Court after hearing their appeals, led by Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
In November 1951 Sheriff Willis McCall shot both Shepherd and Irvin while they were in his custody, saying they tried to escape. Shepherd died on the spot, and Irvin told investigators the sheriff shot them in cold blood. At the second trial, Irvin was convicted again and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life by the governor in 1955. In 1968 he was paroled. The four men were posthumously exonerated on April 18, 2017 by a resolution passed by the Florida House of Representatives. The state also apologized to their families for the racial injustice of the case, and lawmakers called on Florida Governor Rick Scott to officially pardon the men.
In 1948, a 17-year-old white woman, Norma Padgett, accused four young black men in Groveland, Florida of raping her. They were Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin. Shepherd and Irvin were both veterans of World War II.
Shepherd and Irvin were arrested shortly after the young woman accused them. The patrol car drove the men to a secluded spot and ordered them out of the car. Both men were beaten with blackjacks and fists and then kicked as the lay crumpled on the ground while being asked if they had picked up a white girl. After, they were taken to the spot where the crime happened. Deputy Yates inspected Shepherd’s shoes, which he had worn the night before, Yates was frustrated to see that they were not a match to the footprints that were in the ground at the scene. Irvin’s were the same, but Irvin admitted that he was wearing a different pair of shoes. The two men were taken to Tavares jail and taken to the basement to be interrogated while cuffed to overhead pipes and beaten.
Charles Greenlee was a 16-year-old boy who arrived from Gainesville and was trying to find work with his friend Ernest Thomas. Ernest had convinced Charles to come to Groveland because there were plenty of jobs there. Charles had been waiting at a rail depot for Thomas when he was arrested and brought to the police station under suspicion. Charles was interrogated and beaten in a cell that night until he admitted to the rape of Norma Padgett. Thomas fled Lake County the following morning. Greenlee admitted who he had been with, the police discovered where Ernest lived and where he was hiding because of a letter that they found in his letterbox that was addressed for his wife. He was tracked down by a posse days later, 200 miles (320 km) away, and shot and killed. Officers reported that Thomas was armed and reached for his weapon. The NAACP claimed that the posse had never intended to arrest Thomas, but to kill him. According to the coroner's inquest, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall was at the scene when Thomas was shot. The coroner’s jury had found that Ernest Thomas had been lawfully killed and ruled his death as justifiable homicide.
NAACP attorney Franklin Williams reported that each of the three surviving suspects stated, independently of the others, that he was beaten by Lake County deputies. Shepherd and Greenlee both told FBI agents that they confessed to the crime to stop the beatings. Despite the beatings, Irvin never confessed and continued to maintain his innocence. Williams cataloged the still visible evidence of their injuries. Shepherd’s injuries included: scars on head, broken teeth, tooth puncture of upper lip, lash scars across back and chest, scars on the wrist, which supported Shepherd’s claim that he had been cuffed to a metal pipe. Irvin had similar injuries: body scars, wide bruises, lash marks, scars across wrists, and right jaw appeared to be fractured. Charles Greenlee’s injuries included: left eye was red and bruised, right cheekbone bore a double scar and scars around neck, groin area scarred, testicles swollen, numerous cuts on feet.
Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights lawyer that worked for the NAACP, pressed the Justice Department and the FBI to initiate a civil rights and domestic violence investigation into the beatings of the men. Marshall did manage to convince the Justice Department that the beatings violated the Groveland men' rights, and the FBI dispatched agents to investigate. The FBI later concluded that Lake County deputies James Yates and Leroy Campbell had violated the civil rights of the Groveland men and urged U.S. Attorney Herbert Phillips of Florida to prosecute, but a grand jury did not return indictments of the deputies.
The prosecution, fearing that a higher court would reverse any guilty verdicts, never introduced the forced confessions into evidence in the trial. There is much uncertainty regarding whether Padgett was raped. Two of the defendants, Shepherd and Irvin, claimed they were in Eatonville, Florida, drinking that night. Greenlee was apparently nowhere near the other defendants on that night and insisted that he had never met Shepherd and Irvin before. The physician who examined Norma Padgett was not called to the witness stand by the prosecution, and Judge Truman Futch would not permit the defense to call him as a witness. As for the medical exam, the examining physician, Dr. Geoffrey could not tell if Norma had been raped or not. He found no evidence of tears or wounds in the vagina other than the lacerations mentioned above. Laboratory analysis of a vaginal smear revealed no spermatozoa were present in the vagina nor were any organisms resembling gonococci found. There were also no other gross signs of bruises, breaks in the skin or other signs of violence. Sheriff McCall's deputies were accused of manufacturing evidence in this case to win a conviction. Yet both Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death, and Greenlee was given a life sentence.
In November 1951, after NAACP special counsel Thurgood Marshall had the verdict overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, Sheriff McCall was transporting Shepherd and Irvin from Raiford State Prison to the Lake County jail when he claimed to have a flat tire. Alone with the two prisoners, McCall pulled down a dirt road to inspect the tire. He claimed that Shepherd asked to relieve himself, and when the two prisoners, cuffed together, got out of the car, they attacked McCall. He drew his pistol and shot at them. The shooting took place on a dark country road just outside Umatilla, Florida. He shot each prisoner three times. Irvin survived by playing dead, but Shepherd was killed instantly.
The following morning, Irvin told the FBI and reporters that the shooting was unprovoked and that McCall staged the scene to look like an escape attempt. Irvin shocked reporters by claiming that Lake County Deputy James Yates arrived at the scene, saw that Irvin was still breathing, and fired one last shot through Irvin's neck. Irvin survived. The FBI later found a bullet buried in the ground beneath Irvin's blood spot, seemingly supporting Irvin's version of the killing. A nail also was found in the front wheel of McCall’s car and was the reason that he had tire trouble that night. McCall claimed he had no idea how the nail got there but it was evident that it was placed there. An all-white coroner's jury, made up of many of McCall's friends needed half an hour to find that Samuel Shepherd’s death was justified by reason of the fact that Willis McCall was at that time acting in line of duty and in defense of his own life. McCall was cleared of any wrongdoing. (At this time, most blacks had been disfranchised by state laws since the turn of the 20th century. They therefore were excluded from juries in the state).
Irvin was retried in Marion County, Florida. Thurgood Marshall led the defense team from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Irvin was found guilty. He had refused a deal from the prosecutor and Governor Fuller Warren to spare him from a death sentence if he pleaded guilty to the rape. Irvin refused, emphatically stating that he would not lie by admitting to rape. He was sentenced to death again by Judge Futch. In 1955, the newly elected Governor LeRoy Collins commuted Irvin's sentence to life in prison, stating that neither trial proved conclusively that Irvin was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Irvin was paroled in 1968; he died in 1969 while visiting Lake County.
Apologies and Exoneration
In 2016, both the city of Groveland and Lake County offered apologies to the men and their families and began lobbying state lawmakers to do the same. On Tuesday, April 18, 2017, the Florida House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution, sponsored by State Rep. Bobby DuBose apologizing to the families of the Groveland Four and exonerating the men. An identical resolution sponsored by State Senator Gary Farmer passed unanimously in the Florida State Senate on April 27, 2017. The resolutions also called on Governor Rick Scott to expedite the process for granting posthumous pardons.
- 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.
- "PBS - Freedom Never Dies: The Story of Harry T. Moore - Florida Terror - Groveland - Irvin's Statement Page 1". www.pbs.org. Retrieved 2016-11-28.
- Gilbert King (6 March 2012). Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-209771-2.
- Gary Corsair (1 March 2004). The Groveland Four: The Sad Saga of a Legal Lynching. AuthorHouse. ISBN 978-1-4140-7243-2. - This is a self-published book, which does not qualify as RS per Wikipedia guidelines. Moved it to this section for reader's interest.
- Gilbert King (6 March 2012). Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. Harper. ISBN 978-0-0617-9228-1.
- Former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall argued two cases in Ocala with mention of Willis V. McCall, Ocala History
- Early Pioneers of Civil Rights in Florida: Harry Moore, Selections from the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History, University of Florida
- John Hill, "A Southern sheriff's law and disorder", St.Petersburg Times
- T. Hobbs, "Hitler is Here": Lynching in Florida During the Era of World War II, thesis, 2004