TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state Cabinet granted posthumous pardons Friday to four African-American men accused of raping a white woman nearly 70 years ago in a case now seen as a racial injustice.
The unanimous vote came minutes after the alleged victim pleaded with DeSantis and the Cabinet members -- meeting as the clemency board -- not to grant the pardons, saying she still relives the horror of the rape she said happened in 1949.
But DeSantis, an attorney, said the pardon was more about the actions of Lake County officials and the state criminal justice system.
“You’d like to think that in America no matter what passions or prejudices may be on the outside of a courtroom, that when you actually get in that courtroom that it’s the law applied to the facts without passions or prejudices that will decide your fate,” DeSantis said. “And I don’t know that there is any way you could look at this case and think that those ideals of justice were satisfied. Indeed, they were perverted time and time again.”
DeSantis also praised current Lake County officials who urged the pardon.
“I think it says a lot about them that they’re willing to look back at this and acknowledge that this was not right,” DeSantis said.
Chris Hand, a Jacksonville attorney, was at the meeting Friday in Tallahassee. He agrees wholeheartedly with the pardons.
"The Groveland Four and their families have been waiting 70 years for justice to occur, and now that wait is over," Hand told News4Jax.
The ordeal began in Lake County in 1949, when the then-17-year-old said she had been raped. Three of the men were arrested and severely beaten; a fourth, Ernest Thomas, fled.
A posse of about 1,000 men was formed to hunt down Thomas. He was shot 400 times when they found him sleeping under a tree. White residents also formed a mob and went to a black neighborhood, burning houses and firing guns into homes in a disturbance that took days to quell.
Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd were convicted despite dubious evidence. Other evidence that could have exonerated them -- such as a doctor's conclusion that the teen probably wasn't raped -- was withheld at their trial. Greenlee was sentenced to life, and Irvin and Shepherd to death.
Thurgood Marshall, later the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, took up Irvin and Shepherd's appeals for the NAACP, and in 1951 the U.S. Supreme Court ordered new trials.
Just before those trials began, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot Irvin and Shepherd, claiming the handcuffed men tried to escape as he transferred them from prison to a jail. Shepherd died. Irvin was shot in the neck and survived despite an ambulance refusing to transport him because he was black. He was again convicted, even though a former FBI agent testified that prosecutors manufactured evidence against him.
Charges were never brought against any white law enforcement officers or prosecutors who handled the cases.
Irvin was paroled in 1968 and found dead in his car while returning to Lake County for a funeral a year later.
Greenlee was paroled in 1960 and died in 2012.
In 2017, the state House and Senate voted unanimously to formally apologize to the men's families and asked then-Gov. Rick Scott to pardon them. He took no action. DeSantis replaced Scott as governor on Tuesday.
Carol Greenlee, daughter of Greenlee, said “a burden has been lifted.”
“It’s like waking up out of a nightmare, out of a terrible dream,” Carol Greenlee said. “This is a true vindication of my father.”
Greenlee’s son Charles Greenlee cried as he said after the hearing that “justice has been served.”
“My father was 16. He was beaten. He was put in prison for a crime he never committed,” Charles Greenlee said. “His only crime was to be black in the state of Florida.”
Charles Greenlee said something may have happened to Norma Padgett Upshaw on July 16, 1949, but his father wasn’t involved.
Padgett Upshaw, surrounded by her sons and other family members, rejected the accusatory comments by a relative of Shepherd’s during the hearing that she was “a liar”
“You all just don’t know what kind of horror I’ve been through for all these many years,” Padgett Upshaw said. “I know she called me a liar, but I’m not no liar. If I had to go to court today, I could tell the same story that I told than.”
She also remained firm that the four men were the ones involved.
“I’m begging you not to give them pardons because they done it,” Padgett Upshaw said. “If you do, you’re going to be just like them.”
Attorney General Ashley Moody said Friday's action wasn’t about the victim but “righting a wrong of 70 years ago.”
“By anyone’s judgment of this case, due process and the norms that we have that protect liberties of people now in today’s law and in our justice system were not afforded to these defendants,” Moody said.
Newly sworn in Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who restarted the push for the pardons in December, said she was proud of her colleagues.
She released the following statement Friday:
“Today’s action marks progress and resolution on an undeniable injustice of the past -- I’m proud of my colleagues and thankful for everyone who has worked so hard to help correct this disgrace. And although the action taken today can never fully revise this dark chapter of Florida’s past, it’s my hope that the families of Charles Greenlee, Earnest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin can accept this pardon as a sincere attempt to set the record of history straight. I look forward to working with the Clemency Board and the FDLE to ensure a full proclamation of exoneration is obtained to clear the names of each of the Groveland Four.”
Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis also voted for the pardons.
Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, applauded the decision Friday and issued the following statement:
“A great injustice has finally been corrected. I applaud the action by Governor DeSantis, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Attorney General Ashley Moody, and CFO Jimmy Patronis for righting this wrong that has stood for seven decades. I also want to commend Senator Gary Farmer, Representative and former Senator Geraldine Thompson, and Representative Bobby DuBose, whose persistent legislative actions were the impetus for the outcome today.
It is my hope that this pardon brings some solace to the families of these four men, and helps heal the wounds that have lingered for far too long.”
Lake County Property Appraiser Carey Baker, a former state lawmaker, said the four men couldn’t get “true justice” because the process at the time “was so egregiously flawed” and the “actions of local law enforcement so terrible.”
Lake County Commission Chairwoman Leslie Campione said due process was denied for the four men because of the “brutality” of McCall and other local officials.
“History reflects the facts of abuse of power by our Lake County officials at the time,” Campione said. “By taking this action today, we’re able to acknowledge the rights that are guaranteed to us by the U.S. Constitution -- at that point in history -- they were denied.”
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.
Copyright 2019 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.