Grov­e­land Four get jus­tice

Pardons ap­proved for ac­cused men nearly 70 years later

Orlando Sentinel - - COMING SUNDAY - By Stephen Hu­dak, Ryan Gillespie, Beth Kassab and Gray Rohrer

Nearly 70 years af­ter a young white house­wife said she was kid­napped and raped by four black men near the Lake County cit­rus town of Grov­e­land, Florida’s Clemency Board on Fri­day granted pardons to the men whose lives were ru­ined by a racist crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.

Fam­ily mem­bers of the Grov­e­land Four — Sa­muel Shep­herd, Wal­ter Irvin, Charles Green­lee and Ernest Thomas — erupted in ap­plause when the meet­ing ended, hug­ging and con­grat­u­lat­ing each other.

“It is a weight lifted, it is a cloud lifted. It’s the dig­nity of be­ing a Green­lee re­stored, it’s the shame taken away, it’s be­ing let out of prison from a lie that has plagued our fam­ily for all these years,” said Carol Green­lee Craw­ley. “It’s be­ing re­lieved of not be­ing able to say that you’re a Green­lee. It’s just so over­whelm­ing. It’s like wak­ing up out of a night­mare, out of a ter­ri­ble dream.”

In the most dra­matic mo­ment in the hear­ing, Bev­erly Robin­son, a cousin of Shep­herd, turned to ac­cuser Norma Pad­gett, now 86 and seated in a wheel­chair, and pro­claimed the men’s in­no­cence. “You all are liars,” she said.

Pad­gett, in her first pub­lic com­ments out­side of a court­room in nearly seven decades about what she said hap­pened to her, told the Clemency Board, “I am the vic­tim of that night.”

“I was 17 years old and this never left my mind,” she said.

Pad­gett said she kept quiet for years be­cause she wor­ried that some­thing might hap­pen to her sons. Now, she wor­ries about her grand­chil­dren and great-grand­chil­dren.

“You all just don’t know what kind of hor­ror I’ve been through for all these many years,” Pad­gett said. She then be­gan cry­ing. “I’m beg­ging you all not to give them par­don, be­cause they done it,” she said.

De­spite her pleas, the board, led by newly sworn-in Gov. Ron DeSan­tis, quickly voted to par­don the men, who are all de­ceased.

“I am proud of what my mama did and she spoke clearly,” Pad­gett’s son Sammy Up­shaw said in a text when asked his re­ac­tion to the de­ci­sion. “I hope they un­der­stood her.”

Pad­gett and her hus­band, Wil­lie, said the four men ap­proached them on July 16, 1949, on a dark stretch of road near Okahumpka, where the cou­ple’s car had bro­ken down. At first the men helped, but then they hit Wil­lie Pad­gett and took his wal­let, the Pad­getts said. The four put Norma Pad­gett in their car, drove away and raped her in the back­seat, she told po­lice.

“My mom don’t lie,” Cur­tis Up­shaw said last week. “She’s a good Chris­tian lady.”

The case was doc­u­mented in “The Devil in the Grove,” a 2013 Pulitzer Prize-win­ning book by Gil­bert King and “The Grov­e­land Four: The Sad Saga of a Le­gal Lynch­ing” by Gary Cor­sair.

Shep­herd and Irvin, both 22, who were best friends and from Grov­e­land, were beaten along with Green­lee, 16, in the jail af­ter their ar­rests. Thomas, 26, a friend of Green­lee’s, was shot and killed by a posse as he fled to the Pan­han­dle days af­ter the al­leged crime.

Three years later, McCall shot Irvin and Shep­herd as he drove them from the prison in Raiford to Lake County, be­fore they were set to stand trial for a sec­ond time af­ter their first con­vic­tions were over­turned by the U.S. Supreme Court. McCall claimed the men tried to es­cape, but Irvin, who sur­vived the shoot­ing, said McCall forced them from the car and shot them point­blank. Green­lee was not in­cluded in the sec­ond trial be­cause, as the only de­fen­dant who re­ceived a life sen­tence rather than death at the first trial, he chose not to ap­peal.

DeSan­tis, the Repub­li­can for­mer con­gress­man who was sworn in on Tues­day, said just be­fore Christ­mas that he would take up the case. In Congress, DeSan­tis rep­re­sented a por­tion of Lake.

The new gov­er­nor and other of­fi­cials focused on wrong­do­ing in the case by law en­force­ment and the court sys­tem rather than ques­tion­ing the va­lid­ity of Pad­gett’s story.

“I re­ally be­lieve in the prin­ci­ples of the con­sti­tu­tion and get­ting a fair shake,” DeSan­tis said on Fri­day. “I think the way this was car­ried out was a mis­car­riage of jus­tice.”

All five elected con­sti­tu­tional of­fi­cers in Lake County, in­clud­ing Sher­iff Pey­ton Grin­nell, wrote a let­ter to DeSan­tis last month call­ing for the “ex­on­er­a­tion and vin­di­ca­tion” of Shep­herd, Irvin, Green­lee and Thomas.

Lake County Prop­erty Ap­praiser Carey Baker, a life­long res­i­dent of the county, urged the board on Fri­day to grant the pardons on be­half on Lake’s con­sti­tu­tional of­fi­cers.

“In re­flect­ing on this case, it is clear to us that the process for true jus­tice, in this case, was so egre­giously flawed, so twisted and so per­verted … and the ac­tions of the lo­cal law en­force­ment were just so ter­ri­ble and just so wrong that true jus­tice could never have been found in those cir­cum­stances,” he said. “The only real rem­edy for this is a full par­don of those ac­cused.”

The case for ex­on­er­a­tion

Gov. Rick Scott was asked to grant pardons in the case af­ter the Leg­is­la­ture apol­o­gized to the men’s fam­i­lies in 2017, a year af­ter Grov­e­land and Lake County gov­ern­ments apol­o­gized for the case. But Scott never brought the case be­fore the Clemency Board.

Scott told the Tampa Bay Times this week the Pad­gett fam­ily never lob­bied him on the case, and that facts were still be­ing gath­ered when he left of­fice. In his first Clemency Board meet­ing, DeSan­tis pri­or­i­tized the case.

Fam­ily mem­bers of the four ac­cused say they waited too long for their names to be cleared.

Hen­ri­etta Irv­ing, a sis­ter of Irvin and who worked for Pad­gett’s fam­ily in the 1940s, said the men are in­no­cent.

“This woman knows those boys were killed for noth­ing,” said Irv­ing, 86, of Mi­ami who at­tended her brother’s trial. “Com­mon sense will know that these boys didn’t rape no­body.”

A par­don by the Clemency Board “for­gives guilt” from con­vic­tions. Tech­ni­cally, only two of the men — Green­lee and Irvin — were el­i­gi­ble be­cause Ernest Thomas was killed be­fore he could ever stand trial and Sa­muel Shep­herd was shot dead by McCall af­ter his first con­vic­tion was over­turned, but the board ex­tended the par­don to all four as a sym­bolic ges­ture.

In a tweet af­ter the meet­ing, Nikki Fried, the lone Demo­crat on the Clemency Board, called for a full ex­on­er­a­tion of the men.

Among the most com­pelling ev­i­dence that the crime never hap­pened:

An FBI re­port ob­tained by King, the au­thor of “The Devil in The Grove,” through a Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion re­quest re­vealed state­ments to FBI agents by Norma Pad­gett that con­tra­dicted her trial tes­ti­mony. One wit­ness, Lawrence Burtoft, was the first to see Pad­gett af­ter the al­leged at­tack and told pros­e­cu­tors that she told him she was kid­napped but never men­tioned be­ing raped. Burtoft also said she told him she couldn’t iden­tify her at­tack­ers. Pros­e­cu­tors with­held that in­for­ma­tion from the de­fense. When Burtoft tes­ti­fied at Irvin’s sec­ond trial, Pad­gett changed her story and said she told him the de­tails about the at­tack.

A med­i­cal re­port by the doc­tor who ex­am­ined Pad­gett af­ter the al­leged crime did not show con­clu­sive ev­i­dence that she was raped and was not turned over to the ac­cused men’s de­fense team.

Charles Green­lee was al­ready in cus­tody of law en­force­ment when the at­tack al­legedly took place af­ter he was found car­ry­ing a pis­tol with­out a li­cense, ac­cord­ing to King’s re­search.

Jesse Hunter, the pros­e­cu­tor in the case, wrote a let­ter to then-Gov. LeRoy Collins ad­mit­ting that he had doubts about Wal­ter Irvin’s guilt and urged him to com­mute his sen­tence from death to life in prison. Collins com­muted the sen­tence in 1954.

There was also a com­plicit lo­cal press, which was quick to side with McCall’s brand of jus­tice that was often dis­pensed in the Jim Crow South. When the U.S. Supreme Court over­turned the 1949 con­vic­tions, the unan­i­mous opin­ion not only as­sailed Lake County’s mis­treat­ment of the ac­cused but also bi­ased cov­er­age in lo­cal news­pa­pers, which in­cluded the Sen­tinel, then known as the Or­lando

Morn­ing Sen­tinel. The jus­tices called the trial “but a le­gal ges­ture to regis­ter a ver­dict al­ready dic­tated by the press and the pub­lic opin­ion it gen­er­ated.”

The NAACP ap­pealed for dona­tions to the le­gal de­fense fund with a pam­phlet cit­ing “the no­to­ri­ous Grov­e­land, Florida, rape frame-up” and a Morn­ing Sen­tinel ed­i­to­rial car­toon of four elec­tric chairs un­der the cap­tion “no com­pro­mise.”

His­to­ri­ans and au­thors have theorized that Pad­gett and her hus­band, whom she di­vorced in 1958 and died some years later, came up with the story of the rape to ex­plain away a volatile re­la­tion­ship that, on that night, left Norma alone on a dark stretch of road.

King re­ported in his book that Irvin and Shep­herd did stop that night to help the Pad­getts with the bro­ken-down car. Shep­herd got into a fight with Wil­lie Pad­gett af­ter he made a racist re­mark and, even­tu­ally, Shep­herd and Irvin drove off.

By morn­ing, Norma and Wil­lie Pad­gett told po­lice the four men robbed him and ab­ducted and raped her.

Whether the story was true or not, the ac­cu­sa­tion quickly spi­raled be­yond the con­trol of a 17-year-old girl who was sud­denly un­der the pres­sure of her com­mu­nity and a pow­er­ful sher­iff.

Within hours of the claims made by Pad­gett, a racist mob gath­ered from across Cen­tral Florida and burned and looted the home of Shep­herd’s fam­ily and in­dis­crim­i­nately fired shots into other homes and busi­nesses, driv­ing many of Grov­e­land’s black fam­i­lies away — some for good. The Ku Klux Klan lit­tered streets with pam­phlets and the gov­er­nor called in the Na­tional Guard to help keep the peace.

Lake County was far from alone in its strug­gle with racial ten­sions, but the case quickly be­came in­ti­mately linked with Grov­e­land, where at least two of the ac­cused lived, in­clud­ing where the home was set ablaze.

Grov­e­land and Lake of­fi­cials have long been un­com­fort­able with the as­so­ci­a­tion. To­day the Grov­e­land his­tor­i­cal mu­seum con­tains no men­tion of the case.

The Lake County His­tor­i­cal Mu­seum in Tavares, which once served as the jail and court­house where the men were beaten and tried, has a photo of three of the men, though McCall, known for his bru­tal­ity as sher­iff, is cropped from the pic­ture.

The trib­ute wasn’t added un­til last year.

‘Cry­ing for jus­tice’

For all the un­easi­ness the case brings for some in Lake County, the fam­i­lies of the ac­cused never stopped be­liev­ing the men were in­no­cent.

Aaron New­son, 57, is a nephew of Ernest Thomas and be­came in­trigued with the case in re­cent years. He pro­vided a photo of a man he said is his un­cle, the first such photo ever pub­lished, ac­cord­ing to his­to­ri­ans who have stud­ied the case.

He said he re­mem­bers his mother and grand­mother talk­ing about the case.

“My grand­mother … she be­lieved along with my mom that he had noth­ing to do with it,” said New­son, a for­mer cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer in New York. “Her thing was that he was in the wrong place, or his name was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”

His grand­mother owned the Grov­e­land-area bar the Blue Flame, which was shot at by the mob af­ter the rape al­le­ga­tion was made. His fam­ily fled Lake County af­ter that.

“When you see your mom and your grand­mother cry­ing for jus­tice … even though they’re not here any­more, it’s sweet to fi­nally make sure that they got what they wanted,” he said.

Irv­ing, the sis­ter of Wal­ter Irvin, said she has car­ried her own guilt over his in­volve­ment in the case. He only re­turned to Grov­e­land af­ter serv­ing in World War II be­cause she mar­ried James Shep­herd, who also hap­pened to be the brother of Sa­muel Shep­herd, when she was just 16.

“That was the only rea­son he came home,” she said while seated on her walker in her Mi­ami liv­ing room. “He didn’t want to see me at 16 go down the wrong road. … I had no busi­ness get­ting mar­ried. I didn’t know what I was do­ing.”

Soon af­ter, he was ar­rested and charged with the crime.

Irv­ing re­mem­bers vis­it­ing her brother on Death Row: His head was shaved and he was cry­ing.

“He said to my mom, ‘Mom, don’t let them put me in a hole,’” she said. “It came very close.”

A last-minute stay spared Irvin’s life, and his sen­tence was com­muted. He was paroled in 1968, af­ter spend­ing nearly 20 years in prison, and lived in Mi­ami near Irv­ing. She helped him find a house and taught him how to ride the city bus. But, she said, he was dif­fer­ent from the brother she knew grow­ing up in Grov­e­land.

“I know he was an­gry when he left this world,” she said. “I just hope and pray he turned that anger loose.”

He died a year af­ter his re­lease, ap­par­ently of nat­u­ral causes, on his first trip back to Grov­e­land. Green­lee died at age 78 in 2012.

Vi­vian Shep­herd, niece of Sa­muel Shep­herd, said Pad­gett apol­o­gized to Sa­muel Shep­herd’s brother dur­ing a brief en­counter 20 years ago.

Shep­herd said her mother told her that Pad­gett stopped by their home in Cler­mont not long be­fore James Shep­herd died. Back in the 1940s, the Shep­herd fam­ily farm bor­dered that of Pad­gett’s fam­ily.

“My dad let her in and they sat on the porch and they spoke,” Vi­vian Shep­herd told the Sen­tinel of the en­counter, which was first re­ported by King in The At­lantic magazine in 2017. “Dad said that she came to apol­o­gize and she said it never hap­pened.”

Asked whether his mother made such an apol­ogy, Cur­tis Up­shaw said she did not.

“I know he was an­gry when he left this world. I just hope and pray he turned that anger loose.” Hen­ri­etta Irvin, sis­ter of Wal­ter Irvin


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


Top: Carol Green­lee, daugh­ter of Charles Green­lee, one of the four men in the Grov­e­land Four, hugs Rep. Bobby Dubose, af­ter her fa­ther was par­doned by Gov. Ron DeSan­tis and his Cab­i­net dur­ing a clemency board hear­ing Fri­day.

Mid­dle: Sur­rounded by her sons, Norma Pad­gett, the ac­cuser of the Grov­e­land Four, hits her fist on the ta­ble and pleads with the clemency board not to par­don the Grov­e­land Four dur­ing a clemency board hear­ing where the four were par­doned.


Bot­tom: Hen­ri­etta Irv­ing, 86, of Mi­ami, is the sis­ter of Wal­ter Irvin and sis­terin-law of Sa­muel Shep­erd, two of the Grov­e­land Four.

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