After nearly 70 years, Grov­e­land Four re­ceive par­dons

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE - BY SA­MAN­THA J. GROSS [email protected]­ami­her­ald.com Her­ald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

After nearly 70 years, all mem­bers of the Grov­e­land Four — four young black men falsely ac­cused of rap­ing a white woman in Lake County — were par­doned by a unan­i­mous vote on Fri­day.

The Florida Cabi­net met as the state Clemency Board on Fri­day, when it heard from fam­ily mem- bers of the men who were ei­ther im­pris­oned, tor­tured, or mur­dered by mobs and a racist sher­iff. The Grov­e­land Four mat­ter was only sup­posed to be up for dis­cus­sion, and fam­i­lies were not ex­pect­ing to hear a vote on Fri­day. But at the end of the meet­ing, Gov. Ron DeSan­tis called for a vote.

“I be­lieve in the prin­ci­ples of the Con­sti­tu­tion. I be­lieve in get­ting a fair shake,” he said. “I

The Grov­e­land Four — four young black men falsely ac­cused of rap­ing a white woman in Lake County — were par­doned in a unan­i­mous vote of Florida’s Clemency Board after Gov­er­nor Ron DeSan­tis un­ex­pect­edly called for a vote.

don’t think there’s any way that you can look at this case and see jus­tice was car­ried out.”

Some call the treat­ment of the four men one of the worst episodes of racism in Amer­i­can history. In 1949, a 17-year-old white woman and her es­tranged hus­band told po­lice that she had been kid­napped and raped by four black men after the cou­ple’s car broke down out­side Grov­e­land in Lake County. Sher­iff Wil­lis McCall ar­rested four men, even though Charles Green­lee, 17, was ar­rested in a separate in­ci­dent 20 miles away when the al­leged rape oc­curred and said he didn’t know the other three men.

Sa­muel Shep­herd and Wal­ter Irvin told po­lice they had stopped to help the cou­ple but de­nied as­sault­ing Norma Pad­gett. After be­ing beaten by po­lice in the county jail, both Green­lee and Shep­herd con­fessed. Ernest Thomas es­caped but was mur­dered two days later by a posse of 1,000 men who shot him while he slept un­der a tree in Madi­son County.

The fam­i­lies of Green­lee, Irvin, Shep­herd, and Thomas sat scat­tered through­out the room Fri­day in the Capi­tol. Some spoke at the podium in front of the Clemency Board.

After Thomas’ mur­der, the other three men were con­victed by all-white ju­ries. Irvin and Shep­herd were sen­tenced to death, and Green­lee was given a life sen­tence. In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court or­dered a re­trial. Seven months later, while the sher­iff was tak­ing Shep­herd and Irvin to a court hear­ing, he pulled over and shot the two men on the side of the road. Shep­herd died, but Irvin pre­tended to be dead. The sher­iff said they had tried to es­cape, but Irvin said they were shot while they were hand­cuffed to each other and ly­ing on the ground.

De­spite the ev­i­dence, Irvin was con­victed again and given an­other death sen­tence. In 1955, Gov. LeRoy Collins com­muted his sen­tence to life in prison, and he was paroled in 1968. Irvin was found dead in his car the next year. Green­lee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012.

Wade Green­lee, the younger brother of Charles, trav­eled to Tallahassee from Jack­sonville for the hear­ing.

“We all know how things were back then,” he said. “All you had to do was be black. The rea­son we’re here to­day is be­cause Irvin didn’t die. God al­lowed him to live to tell the story.”

Shep­herd’s cousin, Bev­erly Robin­son, was also in the au­di­ence. Dur­ing the meet­ing she turned and spoke di­rectly to the ac­cuser, Norma Pad­gett.

“It never hap­pened, Miss Pad­gett,” she said. “You and your fam­ily are liars.”

Pad­gett, who sat sur­rounded by fam­ily in the front row, was wheeled to a mi­cro­phone.

“I’m the vic­tim of that night. I tell you now, that it’s been on my mind for 70 years. I was 17 years old and it’s never left my mind,” she said, her sons stand­ing be­hind her. “I’m beg­ging y’all not to give the par­dons be­cause they did it. If you do, you’re go­ing to be just like them.”

The Grov­e­land Four’s story be­came the fo­cus of a 2013 Pulitzer Prize-win­ning book about the case, “Devil in the Grove.” The au­thor of the book, Gil­bert King, tes­ti­fied in front of the board.

Thomas and Carol Green­lee, two of Charles’ chil­dren, trav­eled to Tallahassee from Ge­or­gia and Ten­nessee for the hear­ing.

“He was clearly con­victed by a per­son who just said he did it. The cli­mate of those times — that’s all they need,” Thomas Green­lee said in front of the board. “He wasn’t there for birth­days. He wasn’t there to help with home­work. He just was not there. You put some­one into a sit­u­a­tion where you not only af­fect him but the whole fam­ily.”

Carol Green­lee men­tioned that when she used to ask her fa­ther about the trial, he al­ways said he didn’t even know the other men.

“The ev­i­dence was in the record,” she said. “He was ac­cused, put in jail, and tor­tured.”

After the vote, Green­lee said she was over­whelmed be­cause they hadn’t ex­pected a fi­nal an­swer on Fri­day.

“You can hold the truth down for so long, but even­tu­ally it will come out,” she said. “My fa­ther used to tell me all the time that you may get tired, but don’t quit. He said that is what kept him go­ing.”

In 2017, the Florida Leg­is­la­ture unan­i­mously passed a bill ask­ing for­mer Gov. Rick Scott to par­don them.

He re­fused and never said why.

“Rick Scott didn’t have the guts,” Wade Green­lee said. “He could have done this with a stroke of a pen years ago. Gov. DeSan­tis didn’t waste any time.”

DeSan­tis, who spoke at a news con­fer­ence be­fore the Cabi­net meet­ing, called the en­tire sit­u­a­tion a “per­ver­sion of jus­tice.”

“The thing is, when you’re look­ing at these is­sues of par­dons, you still have to have good jus­tice even if some­one wasn’t in­no­cent,” DeSan­tis said. “To me, I look at how this whole thing went and I think that when the Leg­is­la­ture passed the res­o­lu­tion in 2017, they were right — this was a mis­car­riage of jus­tice.”

After the vote, House Speaker José Oliva, RMi­ami Lakes, called the ac­tion “long over­due.”

“I thank Gov­er­nor DeSan­tis for his swift ac­tion in this mat­ter and es­pe­cially con­grat­u­late the de­scen­dants and fam­ily of the Grov­e­land Four who never gave up hope and saw jus­tice done to­day,” he said in a state­ment.

Se­nate Pres­i­dent Bill Gal­vano echoed the sen­ti­ment, not­ing that the Se­nate did its due dili­gence in pass­ing the res­o­lu­tion nearly two years ago.

“We all de­serve fair and equal treat­ment un­der our laws,” he said in a state­ment. “It is abun­dantly clear that time and time again the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem failed to pro­tect the ba­sic con­sti­tu­tional rights of these men.”

Chief Fi­nan­cial Of­fi­cer Jimmy Pa­tro­nis, who filed the rule to put the Grov­e­land Four on the Clemency Board’s agenda last year, said he didn’t know then which board would be meet­ing to dis­cuss it, re­fer­ring to Scott and the for­mer Cabi­net of­fi­cers or the new gov­er­nor and Cabi­net mem­bers.

“My point was just to get it on the agenda and ad­dress this mis­car­riage of jus­tice,” he said after the meet­ing.

Agri­cul­ture Com­mis­sioner Ni­cole “Nikki” Fried, who said this week that she wanted more than just a dis­cus­sion, said Fri­day she was pleased that the board came to a vote. Fried is now call­ing for a procla­ma­tion to work with FDLE to ex­on­er­ate all four men.

“An ex­on­er­a­tion makes a state­ment that we ac­tu­ally rec­og­nize what had hap­pened and make sure that their names are cleared,” said Fried, the first Demo­crat on the Cabi­net since for­mer CFO Alex Sink left of­fice eight years ago.

Mem­bers of the Green­lee fam­ily, who have been fight­ing for this mo­ment their whole adult lives, say their next steps are to con­tinue push­ing for ex­on­er­a­tion and to reach out to com­mu­ni­ties where black men have been un­justly in­car­cer­ated.

“My fa­ther would have asked the ques­tion: ‘Who would it help?’ ” Carol Green­lee said. “It took 70 years to get here. We will go into the prisons, into schools, and com­mu­ni­ties and give them hope.”

Sa­man­tha J. Gross: 850-222-3095, @saman­tha­j­gross

Florida Mem­ory Project

Lake County Sher­iff Wil­lis McCall, far left, and an uniden­ti­fied man stand next to Wal­ter Irvin, Sa­muel Shep­herd, and Charles Green­lee.

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