In death, Grov­e­land Four par­doned

Seven decades after ‘mis­car­riage of jus­tice,’ Florida at­tempts repa­ra­tion

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY KATIE METTLER

Seventy years ago in Grov­e­land, Fla., a white teenager named Norma Pad­gett ac­cused four black men of kid­nap­ping and rap­ing her in a car on a dark road.

Two of the men would even­tu­ally be shot dead by the seg­re­ga­tion­ist sher­iff of Lake County and his an­gry mob, and the other two wrong­fully con­victed on lit­tle ev­i­dence by all-white ju­ries. The case of the Grov­e­land Four, as they be­came known, in­spired a Pulitzer Prize-win­ning book and has been con­sid­ered for decades one of Florida’s most grave in­jus­tices and a sym­bol of racism in the Jim Crow South.

In 2017, the state of Florida for­mally apol­o­gized for what hap­pened in the sum­mer of 1949. And on Fri­day, the state’s clemency board voted to posthu­mously par­don all four men: Ernest Thomas, Sa­muel Shep­herd, Charles Green­lee and Wal­ter Irvin.

The de­cid­ing fac­tor, the board said, was not whether Pad­gett lied — as the rel­a­tives of the ac­cused in­sisted she’d done — but whether the men ever had a chance at a fair trial. Pad­gett, now 86, watched from her wheel­chair as newly in­au­gu­rated Gov. Ron DeSan­tis (R) declared that they had not. He called the case a “mis­car­riage of jus­tice” and said that the “ap­pro­pri­ate thing to do

is grant par­dons.”

The board voted unan­i­mously for clemency, and the de­scen­dants of the Grov­e­land Four em­braced.

“I hope that this will bring peace to their fam­i­lies and their com­mu­ni­ties,” DeSan­tis said after the hear­ing, which was livestreamed on the In­ter­net.

Pad­gett’s ap­pear­ance be­fore the board, in which she in­sisted she had told “the truth,” marked the first time she had spo­ken pub­licly about her ac­cu­sa­tions out­side a court­room — and the first time since the tri­als decades ago that she had sat among the Grov­e­land Four’s fam­i­lies.

The case be­gan on July 16, 1949. Pad­gett told au­thor­i­ties that she and her hus­band, Wil­lie Pad­gett, had been driv­ing back from a dance when their car broke down. Shep­herd and Irvin, friends from the Army, re­port­edly stopped to help. But the Pad­getts would later tell law en­force­ment in Lake County that the men, plus Thomas and Green­lee, at­tacked Wil­lie and took turns rap­ing Norma.

Within days of Pad­gett’s ac­cu­sa­tions, au­thor­i­ties had jailed Shep­herd, Green­lee and Irvin. A mob led by the white-su­prem­a­cist sher­iff Wil­lis V. McCall chased Thomas 200 miles into the Florida Pan­han­dle, where they shot him dead. In Grov­e­land, ri­ot­ers torched homes owned by black peo­ple, spark­ing un­rest so in­tense that the gov­er­nor even­tu­ally sent in the National Guard.

At the time, ac­cord­ing to the book “Devil in the Grove,” towns­peo­ple qui­etly doubted the Pad­getts’ ver­sion of events amid spec­u­la­tion that her ac­count was merely a coverup for her hus­band’s sus­pected beat­ings. De­spite a lack of ev­i­dence, a jury quickly con­victed the three men who were still alive.

Green­lee, just 16 at the time, was sent to prison for life. Shep­herd and Irvin were ini­tially sen­tenced to death.

At the hear­ing Fri­day, about 15 peo­ple at­tended on the Grov­e­land Four’s be­half, in­clud­ing sur­viv­ing fam­ily mem­bers, Florida law­mak­ers, le­gal ad­vo­cates and Gil­bert King, the au­thor of “Devil in the Grove,” the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-win­ning ac­count that re­vived in­ter­est in the case and un­earthed new ev­i­dence from once-redacted FBI files.

King dis­cov­ered doc­u­ments that showed that Pad­gett had per­jured her­self and that the doc­tor who ex­am­ined her found no phys­i­cal ev­i­dence of rape. He also wrote that the sher­iff ’s of­fice fab­ri­cated foot­print ev­i­dence that sup­pos­edly linked the men to the crime scene.

The au­thor cel­e­brated the par­dons Fri­day: “I don’t think there was any­thing greater than be­ing able to wit­ness that today.”

The path to clemency be­gan in 2015, when Josh Venkatara­man read King’s book in a col­lege his­tory class and started an on­line pe­ti­tion, “Ex­on­er­ate the Grov­e­land Four.”

The city of Grov­e­land and Lake County first apol­o­gized to the men and their fam­i­lies in 2016, and a year later the Florida House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives unan­i­mously passed a res­o­lu­tion that did the same. It also called on then-Gov. Rick Scott (R) to ex­pe­dite the process for grant­ing post­hu­mous par­dons.

But in­stead, that process was de­layed for a year and a half. Venkatara­man filed a for­mal par­don ap­pli­ca­tion in June 2017 for Green­lee and Irvin, the only two ac­tu­ally con­victed of the al­leged crimes. But Scott’s of­fice never took up the case.

Then last week, the board emailed Venkatara­man with the Jan. 11 hear­ing date. He learned Fri­day morn­ing that Pad­gett, whose voice was ab­sent as the case again gained no­to­ri­ety in re­cent years, would also be in Tallahassee for the hear­ing.

Be­fore Pad­gett spoke, law­mak­ers and Grov­e­land Four fam­ily mem­bers took turns re­call­ing 70 years of pain.

Bev­erly Robin­son, a cousin of Shep­herd, di­rectly ad­dressed Pad­gett and her fam­ily.

“It never hap­pened, Miss Pad­gett,” Robin­son said. “You all are liars.”

She said em­phat­i­cally that she did not be­lieve “par­don” was the right word. The men, Robin­son said, should be ex­on­er­ated — a le­gal ac­tion that would not just for­give them but ex­plic­itly state that they were in­no­cent.

Soon after, Pad­gett, in her wheel­chair, ap­proached the board.

“My name is Norma Pad­gett Tyson Up­shaw,” she said. “And I am the vic­tim of that night.”

The woman said she kept her al­leged rape from her chil­dren for many years, but stated firmly that the story she told decades ago was “the truth.”

“I don’t want them par­doned, no I do not, and you wouldn’t ei­ther,” Pad­gett said. “I know she called me a liar, but I ain’t no liar.”

When the tes­ti­mony ended and DeSan­tis and the rest of the board voted, Venkatara­man grabbed King’s shoul­ders, then wrapped Carol Green­lee in a hug.

“It felt like the chains fell off,” Green­lee said later. “It felt like the door swung open, and it felt like I wanted to jump up and down and say, ‘Rest in peace Daddy, rest in peace. It’s over.’ ”

Green­lee was in her mother’s womb when her father was ac­cused of rap­ing Pad­gett. He had been in Lake County that day look­ing for a job.

He did not ap­peal his life sen­tence and was paroled in 1962 after 12 years in prison. Carol Green­lee was 12.

Green­lee rarely spoke of the case, Carol said, be­cause it was so painful. But she had to know what hap­pened that night, so she even­tu­ally asked. Her father said he never knew Norma Pad­gett. The first time he saw her, Green­lee told his daugh­ter, was when he was be­ing tried in court. Green­lee died in 2012 at age 78. Shep­herd and Irvin ap­pealed their death sen­tences, and although the Florida Supreme Court ini­tially up­held their con­vic­tions, the U.S. Supreme Court unan­i­mously over­turned them and or­dered a re­trial. But on their re­turn trip from prison to Lake County for their new trial in 1951, McCall shot them both. He claimed the men had tried to es­cape.

Shep­herd died at the scene. Irvin played dead and sur­vived. He later said the sher­iff fired on them in cold blood and bragged on the po­lice ra­dio that he’d “got rid of them.”

In his second trial, Irvin was rep­re­sented by fu­ture Supreme Court Jus­tice Thur­good Mar­shall. He was once again con­victed, and his ex­e­cu­tion even­tu­ally was sched­uled.

An emer­gency stay saved his life. Later, Florida Gov. Leroy Collins (D) com­mis­sioned a re­port on the case and com­muted Irvin’s sen­tence to life in prison.

Irvin was re­leased in 1968 and died one year later, of a heart at­tack, on a trip back to Lake County for a fu­neral. His fam­ily told King that what re­ally killed Irvin, 41, were the un­treated gun­shot wounds in­flicted by the sher­iff — and the nearly two decades he spent in prison.

BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES

Wal­ter Irvin, cen­ter, con­fers with at­tor­neys Thur­good Mar­shall, left, and Paul Perkins Jr. in 1952. Irvin, who died after years in jail, was one of four men par­doned Fri­day in a decades-old rape case.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA

TOP: Sher­iff Wil­lis V. McCall, far left, with Wal­ter Irvin, Sa­muel Shep­herd and Charles Green­lee, three of the four black men ac­cused of rap­ing a white woman in 1949. The fourth was Ernest Thomas, chased by McCall and a mob and shot to death. ABOVE: Irvin and Shep­herd were shot by McCall on their way to a re­trial in 1951. He claimed they had tried to es­cape. Irvin sur­vived.

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