Flor­ida law­mak­ers are still await­ing ac­tion on par­don for ‘Grov­e­land Four’

The Bradenton Herald - - Front Page - BY LAWRENCE MOWER

The Grov­e­land Four, the four black men wrongly ac­cused of rape in 1949 and mur­dered, tor­tured or wrongly im­pris­oned, is one of the ugli­est episodes of racism in Flor­ida’s his­tory.

The case is so bad that books have been writ­ten about it, and last year Flor­ida’s Leg­is­la­ture voted to ask the state’s Clemency Board — led by Gov. Rick Scott — to posthu­mously par­don them.

Yet more than a year has gone by with­out the board tak­ing up the Leg­is­la­ture’s re­quest, and the agenda for Scott’s fi­nal Clemency Board meeting, which has been post­poned, doesn’t in­clude the Grov­e­land Four.

Af­ter this week’s Cabi­net meeting, none of the four members of the Clemency Board could say why they haven’t par­doned the Grov­e­land Four.

While the process to ap­ply and get some­one par­doned can take years, each mem­ber of the board has a sim­ple so­lu­tion: the rules al­low them to im­me­di­ately bring a can­di­date be­fore them to be par­doned.

That, in fact, is what law­mak­ers asked the board to do in 2017. The res­o­lu­tion they unan­i­mously passed in­cluded “urg­ing the Gover­nor and Cabi­net to per­form an ex­pe­dited clemency re­view” for the four men.

Scott, who left be­fore tak­ing ques­tions from the me­dia on Tues­day, said through a spokesman that it was a mat­ter of pro­ce­dure.

His spokesman did not ad­dress the fact that the gover­nor could merely in­voke the rule to im­me­di­ately speed up the pro-


“Gov. Scott is aware of the Grov­e­land Four case and is strongly against any form of racial in­jus­tice or dis­crim­i­na­tion,” his spokesman said in a state­ment. “Cur­rently, the fam­i­lies of Wal­ter Irvin and Charles Green­lee have ap­pli­ca­tions pend­ing with the Com­mis­sion on Of­fender Re­view which, on be­half of the state of Flor­ida, con­ducts clemency in­ves­ti­ga­tions per stan­dard pro­ce­dure and the Flor­ida Con­sti­tu­tion.

“Af­ter the com­mis­sion con­cludes a clemency in­ves­ti­ga­tion, their find­ings are pre­sented to the four-mem­ber Board of Ex­ec­u­tive Clemency. We con­tinue to re­view all of our op­tions.”

Agri­cul­ture Com­mis­sioner Adam Put­nam took ques­tions from re­porters but would not say why he hasn’t done so.

“The year’s not done, and our term’s not done,” Put­nam said. “There may yet be an op­por­tu­nity. But that’s still in flux. We’ll see.”

Chief Fi­nan­cial Of­fi­cer Jimmy Pa­tro­nis avoided an­swer­ing, say­ing he didn’t know the next time the Clemency Board would meet. The meeting was sup­posed to be on Wed­nes­day, but it was in­def­i­nitely post­poned so Scott could at­tend ser­vices for for­mer Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush in Washington.

When told that the Grov­e­land Four wasn’t on the agenda for the fi­nal meeting, Pa­tro­nis said, “We have an­other agenda com­ing out.”

As for At­tor­ney Gen­eral Pam Bondi, she also left the Cabi­net meeting with­out tak­ing any ques­tions, and her spokesman did not re­spond to the ques­tion.

For Scott, Bondi and Pa­tro­nis, the clemency meeting, if it’s resched­uled be­fore Jan. 8, will be their last chance to par­don the Grov­e­land Four.

The Leg­is­la­ture’s res­o­lu­tion ad­dressed the “grave in­jus­tices per­pe­trated against” Charles Green­lee, Wal­ter Irvin, Sa­muel Shep­herd and Ernest Thomas, and it of­fered a “for­mal and heart­felt apol­ogy to these vic­tims of racial ha­tred and to their fam­i­lies.”

It’s a shock­ing episode of Flor­ida dur­ing the Jim Crow era that was the sub­ject of Gil­bert King’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize win­ning book, “Devil in the Grove: Thur­good Mar­shall, the Grov­e­land Boys, and the Dawn of a New Amer­ica.”

King said Thurs­day that par­don­ing the men is a chance to fin­ish what the state of Flor­ida started.

“I don’t think there’s a political price to pay for this,” he said. “I don’t see this as a political is­sue. I see it more as a right vs. wrong and cor­rect­ing a grave in­jus­tice.”

In 1949, a 17-year-old white woman and her es­tranged hus­band told po­lice that she’d been ab­ducted by four black men and raped af­ter the cou­ple’s car broke down out­side Grov­e­land, in Lake County.

Sher­iff Wil­lis McCall ar­rested the four men, even though Green­lee, 16, was be­ing held by a store watch­man 20 miles away when the al­leged rape hap­pened and said he didn’t know the other three men.

Irvin and Shep­herd, who were World War II vet­er­ans, ad­mit­ted they had stopped to help the cou­ple but de­nied rap­ing the woman. But both Green­lee and Shep­herd con­fessed af­ter be­ing beaten in the base­ment of the county jail.

The fourth man, Thomas, es­caped, but was “hunted” over the next 30 hours by a posse of 1,000 men with blood­hounds. They shot and killed Thomas while he slept un­der a tree in Madi­son County.

All-white juries con­victed the three men and sen­tenced Irvin and Shep­herd to death. Green­lee was given a life sen­tence.

But the U.S. Supreme Court or­dered a re­trial in 1951. Seven months later, while McCall was trans­port­ing Shep­herd and Irvin to a court hear­ing, the sher­iff pulled over and shot the two men on the side of the road.

Shep­herd died, but Irvin pre­tended to be dead. McCall claimed they had tried to es­cape, but Irvin said McCall shot them in cold blood while they were hand­cuffed to each other and ly­ing on the ground. The FBI later found a bul­let un­der a blood spot where Irvin said he’d been shot.

De­spite ev­i­dence the FBI said was man­u­fac­tured, Irvin was con­victed again and given an­other death sen­tence. In 1955, Gov. LeRoy Collins com­muted the sen­tence to life in prison, and he was paroled in 1968.

Irvin was found dead in his car a year later, while vis­it­ing Lake County dur­ing a funeral. Green­lee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012.

The Leg­is­la­ture’s res­o­lu­tion said the four men were “vic­tims of gross in­jus­tices and that their ab­hor­rent treat­ment by the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is a shame­ful chap­ter in this state’s his­tory.”

They then sent copies of the res­o­lu­tion to Scott, Put­nam, Bondi and Pa­tro­nis — where they await fur­ther ac­tion.

Photo cour­tesy of Flor­ida Mem­ory Project

Wal­ter Irvin, Sa­muel Shep­herd and Charles Green­lee were three of the four men who were wrongly ac­cused of rape. The Leg­is­la­ture in 2017 re­quested that they be posthu­mously par­doned.

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