FL Se­nate apol­o­gizes for racial in­jus­tice

South Florida Times - - FRONT PAGE - By BREN­DAN FAR­RING­TON

TAL­LA­HAS­SEE, Fla. - The Florida Se­nate for­mally apol­o­gized on Thurs­day to the fam­i­lies of four black men ac­cused of rap­ing a white teenager nearly seven decades ago in a case now seen as racial in­jus­tice.

The Se­nate also is ask­ing Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabi­net to posthu­mously par­don the men known as the Grov­e­land Four. The Florida House is­sued the same apol­ogy last week. Both votes were unan­i­mous.

“We can­not go back to this ter­ri­ble event and undo it, but we can ac­knowl­edge our wrongs and we can bring peace and heal­ing and clo­sure to the fam­i­lies who have suf­fered for so long,” said Demo­cratic Sen. Gary Farmer, who spon­sored the res­o­lu­tion.

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

A 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 neigh­bor­hood, 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 trial. Green­lee was sen­tenced to life, and Irvin and Shep­herd to death.

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

Just be­fore those tri­als be­gan, Lake County Sher­iff Wil­lis McCall shot Irvin and Shep­herd, claim­ing the hand­cuffed men tried to es­cape as he trans­ferred them 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.

The res­o­lu­tions don't call for any fi­nan­cial com­pen­sa­tion, but Farmer said they take an im­por­tant stand.

“I know that the fam­i­lies of Charles Green­lee, Wal­ter Irvin, Sa­muel Shep­herd and Ernest Thomas are look­ing at us to­day with great ap­pre­ci­a­tion,” Farmer said. “They've lived a long time with this in­dig­nity and this in­jus­tice, this grave mis­car­riage of jus­tice, and to­day we take a large step on their be­half.”

Au­thor Gil­bert King brought at­ten­tion to the case with his 2012 book “Devil in the Grove.”

Green­lee's daugh­ter Carol was at the Capi­tol last week when the House is­sued its apol­ogy and said there was a time her fa­ther ques­tioned what good could come from talk­ing about his case.

“My fa­ther said to me years ago, `If it doesn't help any­body, just for­get it. Let the past be in the past,’” said Green­lee, 67. “When I look around and I see all of the peo­ple who have read the book and have come forth and said `This is not right; this is wrong,' my fa­ther's ques­tion was an­swered. It is help­ful and it will con­tinue to be help­ful. And that makes me feel good.”

“Charles Green­lee, Wal­ter Irvin and Sa­muel Shep­herd were con­victed de­spite du­bi­ous ev­i­dence.”

PHO­TOS COUR­TESY OF WMFE.ORG

Wal­ter Irvin, Charles Green­lee, and Sa­muel Shep­herd were framed for a rape that never oc­curred. Ernest Thomas, the fourth per­son ac­cused, fled. He was hunted and shot 400 times. In the back­ground is the Florida House cham­ber.

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