Walter Lee Irvin (May 8, 1927 - February 16, 1969), a United States Army veteran of World War II, was one of the so-called Groveland Four -- four young African-American men of Lake County, Florida who, in a notorious 1949 case of racial injustice, were falsely accused of rape and assault. Three of the young men were wrongfully convicted: Irvin was sentenced to death, as was another of the defendants; the third, a minor, was sentenced to life in prison. The fourth had fled after being accused, but a few days later and 200 miles away, was caught by a posse and shot to death without arrest or trial.
Their conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States, but Irvin and another of the young men were shot by the Sheriff while being transported; only Irvin survived. Irvin was tried and convicted a second time, his death sentence later commuted to life imprisonment, and he was eventually released only to be found dead a year later under questionable circumstances.
In 2016, all four were exonerated by the State of Florida.. Their story is the subject of Gilbert King's winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, "Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America."
Walter Lee Irvin was born May 8, 1927 in Gainesville, Florida to parents whose ancestors had been freed from slavery. Irvin had served in the United States Army during World War II and returned home, where his family had independently established themselves in the black community of Groveland. Irvin was determined not to work in the orange groves for white planter.
In 1949, Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and 16-year-old Charles Greenlee were falsely accused of the alleged rape of a young white woman, Norma Padgett, and the alleged assault of her husband, Willie. Newspapers called them the Groveland Four or the Groveland Boys. The three were quickly arrested, jailed in Groveland, Florida pending trial, and interrogated while being physically tortured. The fourth of the Groveland Four, Earnest Thomas, was hunted down by a posse 200 miles away and killed while purportedly attempting to escape.
Irvin 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.
Orlando attorney, Franklin Williams, served for the defense. He 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 a minor, 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". Shepherd was declared dead on the scene. 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 defense 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 1969, while visiting Lake County, he was found dead slumped over in his car. Officially his death was ruled to be of natural causes, although Marshall said he had doubts about the circumstances.
His military gravestone in Edgewood Cemetery in Groveland, Lake County, Florida reads, "WALTER L IRVIN, FLORIDA, PVT, 1447 SVC COMD UNIT, WORLD WAR II, MAY 8, 1927 - FEB 16, 1969".
- "Walter Lee Irvin, in the U.S. WWII Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947". Ancestry.com. May 6, 1943. Retrieved December 18, 2018.
- "Pvt Walter L. Irvin, in the U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current". FindAGrave.com. May 4, 2009. Retrieved December 18, 2018.
- Mettler, Katie (April 19, 2017). "'We're truly sorry': Fla. apologizes for racial injustice of 1949 'Groveland Four' rape case". Washington Post. Retrieved December 18, 2018.
- 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.