Walter Lee Irvin was born in Lake County, Florida. He served in the United States Army during World War II. In 1949, he and three other black men (Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, and Samuel Shepherd) were accused of raping a young white woman named Norma Padgett in Groveland, Florida. Newspapers called them the Groveland Four or the Groveland Boys. He was tried twice, the second time after the United States Supreme Court ordered a retrial. He was convicted both times and sentenced to death. In 1955, Florida Governor LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence to life, as he was not convinced of Irvin's guilt. In 1968 he was paroled from prison.
Three blacks, including Irvin and 16-year-old Charles Greenlee, were quickly arrested and put in jail pending trial. The fourth suspect was hunted down by a posse 200 miles away and killed while purportedly attempting to escape.
Orlando attorney, Franklin Williams, was told by the surviving suspects that deputies had beaten them while making them stand on broken glass, hands tied to a pipe above their heads. Sheriff Willis V. McCall's deputies have been accused of manufacturing evidence in this case and others to win convictions. Irvin and another accused, Samuel Shepherd, were found guilty of rape and sentenced to death. Greenlee was also convicted but because of being underage, he was sentenced to life in prison rather than to death.[page needed]
In 1951 an NAACP legal team headed by Thurgood Marshall was successful in getting this case overturned on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered a retrial because blacks had been improperly excluded from the jury. While transporting Shepherd and Irvin from state prison to county jail for retrial, Sheriff McCall shot them both while they were shackled to each other. The Sheriff claimed "that they jumped him in an escape attempt". Samuel Shepherd was declared dead on the scene. Walter Irvin survived and accused the Sheriff of attempted murder in cold blood. The Sheriff was never indicted or suspended from office as a result of this incident.
After recovering from his wounds, Irvin was retried. Thurgood Marshall led the defence team, but Irvin was again found guilty and sentenced to death. In 1955, his sentence was commuted to life in prison by Florida governor LeRoy Collins, who had personally reviewed the case and was not convinced of his guilt.
Irvin was paroled in January 1968. In 1970, while visiting Lake County, he was found dead slumped over his car, officially of natural causes though Marshall said he had doubts about the circumstances.
- 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. Retrieved 8 July 2012.