On the night of July 16, 1949, Norma Padgett, a 17-year old white woman, claimed to have been raped by four young black men: Samuel Shepherd, Ernest Thomas, Walter Irvine, and Charles Greenlee. Seventy years after the wrongful incarceration of Irvine and Greenlee and the death of Shepherd and Thomas- at the hands of corrupt law enforcement, the case was revisited when on January 11, 2019, Florida’s new governor, Ron DeSantis pardoned the Groveland Four.
The South in the mid-twentieth century can often be connected to times of racism and injustice. Ms. Padgett’s testimony, regardless of the lack of evidence or logistics, was enough to permanently derail the lives of four African-Americans. She claimed that on that summer night, her husband and her had been stranded on the side of the road because their car had broken down. Allegedly, when the four men had come across them, they had taken advantage of the situation by attacking Mr. Padgett and then sexually assaulting her. Soon after, Shepherd, Irvine, and Greenlee (who was also 17), were taken into custody. Though each initially denied the events, police officers beat and tortured them until each signed a confession. Thomas attempted to escape after he was accused, and an angry mob followed him 200 miles, led by the sheriff Willis McCall. He was eventually caught and killed. Greenlee was given a life sentence while Irvine and Shepherd each received the death penalty. Two years later, the same sheriff who had chased Thomas shot Irvine and Shepherd while they were being taken to their retrial claiming they had tried . His actions were deemed justified by an all-white jury. Only Irvine survived and was still given a death sentence.
Greenlee and Irvine were each eventually paroled. Greenlee was released from prison in 1962 and died a free man in 2012. Irvine died in 1969, just one year after his release. At the Clemency Board trial, the Groveland Four’s families were present along with Ms. Padgett, now 87. After emotional testimonies from family members of the Four, Ms. Padgett was allowed to speak and remained firm that, “they did it.” Regardless, the Miami Herald reports governor DeSantis’s statement, “I believe in the principles of the Constitution. I don’t think there’s any way that you can look at this case and see justice was carried out.” In a unanimous vote, all four were posthumously pardoned.

Leave a Reply