Tuesday, December 07, 2021

The Groveland Four Are Exonerated ... After Seventy Years

In 1949, four young African American men— Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin—were accused of raping Norma Padgett and assaulting her husband. What happened to these men, soon dubbed the Groveland Four, in the aftermath of a lie is, I would say disgusting, but it’s what happened then, and continues to happen today, to our African American brothers and sisters in America.

After the accusation, Ernest Thomas fled from police, and a posse of 1,000 white men was sent out to capture him, but instead, they found him and shot him over four hundred times while he slept under a tree.

Irvin and Shepherd were arrested shortly after Padgett reported the attack and pol ice officers took the two men to a secluded spot where they were beaten with blackjacks and fists and kicked. They were then driven to the spot where the crime occurred so a deputy could match Shepherd's shoes to those found at the scene; there was not match. Still, the men were taken to Tavares jail, handcuffed to overhead pipes, and beaten and interrogated.

With the capture of Greenlee, just sixteen at the time, the three men were put on trial and convicted by an all-white jury. Greenlee was sentenced to life because of his age, while Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to death.

But it didn’t stop there. In 1951, the US Supreme Court overturned the original convictions citing a lack of evidence, and as the local sheriff, Willis McCall, drove Shepherd and Irvin to court for their new trial, he says the two tried to escape; he shot and killed Shepherd and wounded Irvin.

Thurgood Marshall Sr., then with the NAACP, represented Irvin at his second trial, but another all-white jury convicted him, and he was again sentenced to death. He escaped execution in 1954 when Governor LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence to life with parole.

Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012. Irvin died in 1969, one year after he was paroled.

And now, seventy-two years after their arrest and conviction the Groveland Four have been exonerated after Bill Gladson, a local prosecutor, requested a new hearing—coincidentally held in the same Lake County courthouse where the original trials were held—after he and an investigator interviewed Broward Hunter, the grandson of now-deceased Jesse Hunter, the prosecutor of two of the four defendants.

According to Broward Hunter his grandfather knew there was no rape; Hunter says he found letters in his grandfather’s office in 1971, that suggested Sheriff McCall murdered Shepherd and shot Irvin because of the sheriff’s involvement in an illegal gambling operation. Shepherd was believed to be involved with the gambling operation and McCall may have seen a rape case as a way to get Shepherd.

Armed with new information, Gladson presented his case and last week Florida Administrative Judge Heidi Davis officially acquitted Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee, and Walter Irvin.

Four young men, two murdered and two sent to prison, because a white woman lied, and a white sheriff lied, a white judge allowed the lies, and a white jury bought the lies, and yet the men’s families aren’t angry, but are instead hopeful that the case will spark a reexamination of other convictions of Black men and women from the Jim Crow era so those falsely convicted can have their names cleared.

Aaron Newson, Thomas’ nephew:

“We are blessed. I hope that this is a start because lot of people didn’t get this opportunity. A lot of families didn’t get this opportunity. Maybe they will. This country needs to come together.”

But if we really want this country to come together, we need to own its racist past. These four young men were robbed of their lives, literally—Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd—and figuratively—Charles Greenlee, and Walter Irvin—who spent time in prison and the remainder of their lives being known as rapists.

This has to stop, and only by admitting it to ourselves, and I’m talking to white America, can we work to make sure this doesn’t continue to happen.



Dave R said...

The one thing I disagree with is Newson saying they were blessed. This is about justice finally being served, not being blessed. He is right about this being a start... a small start.

Helen Lashbrook said...

Racism affects how we see people and what we do in response. But to lie and murder and to cause justice to be perverted goes beyond racism and descends into pure evil. We have to remember that everyone is human, even if they are not like us.

Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Oh, Dear.
Reading that just makes me stabby. Really.
And they ask 'why' is it that Black people really do not expect being treated fairly in this country.


JM said...

This makes me sad about our state of affairs, both past and current.

the dogs' mother said...

All very very very sad.

Moving with Mitchell said...

Crap. I started crying as I read through the story. AND, I’ve read it before, so there were no surprises. I’d like to think America is a better place now, but it’s often, maybe even mostly, not.

Treaders said...

Oh my god that is horrendous. I think if you tried to sell that as fiction you would get nowhere!!! They got justice in the end but what good did it do them?

uptonking said...

Dear Bob, please refrain from writing such posts in the future as it may hurt the feelings of some white folk who remain unconvinced that this crapfest of a country isn't a cesspool of racism, sexism, ageism, injustice and greed, built on the blood and labor of people we kidnapped, on land that we stole from another people with whom we attempted to erase with a bit of genocide. Know that this type of story falls under the category Critical Race Theory and therefore may make Timmy cry. And Momma don't want Timmy to cry. Instead, she'd prefer he play football and Grand Theft Auto. Or better yet, let him grab an AK47, travel to another state so he can play security guard for a gas station he has no connection to.

Thanks for your cooperation, Bob. I know YOU understand exactly what I'm saying.


Bob said...

I recently saw a documentary about the survivors of that shooting at the back church in Charleston, and how many of the survivors say they forgive the shooter. It’s a deep faith that allows forgiveness and seeing the exoneration as a blessing.
I don’t know that I could feel that way.

I always tell people who say they don’t SEE color that it;s a racist mentality; you DO see color, how can you not, but it’s how you REACT to that color that tells us what kind of person you are.

When they ask “'why' is it that Black people really do not expect being treated fairly in this country “ they are placing the blame on the black people in this country, as if black people did something that warrants this.
Sickens me.

Me, too.

I keep thinking about a posse of 1,000 men putting 400 bullets in a kid asleep under a tree without so much as an investigation or anything, and how that was just allowed to slide by.

I don’t think I’d ever heard the story so it made me sick reading about it and then blogging about it. And I don’t know if we are much better today …

It’s so disgusting, and it still goes on to this day, perhaps not so horribly, so egregiously, but it still goes on.

I know exactly what you mean. You nailed it!

Anne Johnson said...

This country will never recover from such injustices.

Bohemian said...

I can't add anything or say it better than what Uptonking said...

Debra She Who Seeks said...

A truly gross miscarriage of justice.

Bob said...

@Anne Johnson
Mainly because we never learn.

He nailed it!

It’s just so disgusting.

Travel said...

It is still a scary place for many of our neighbors, we must change