Published: Sun, January 13, 2019
Worldwide | By Isabel Fisher

Groveland Four pardoned by Florida clemency board 70 years later

Groveland Four pardoned by Florida clemency board 70 years later

When a white woman claimed she was raped by four young black men outside Groveland in 1949, the Ku Klux Klan torched black neighborhoods and four men were falsely accused. Three of the men were arrested and severely beaten; a fourth, Ernest Thomas, fled. But before the second trial could begin, they were attacked again.

Thomas was hunted down by a mob of almost 1,000 men who shot him 400 times after finding him sleeping under a tree.

Not even a "heartfelt" 2017 apology from the Florida legislature and an impassioned plea for justice in Congress a year ago by Senator Marco Rubio was enough to sway the outgoing governor, Rick Scott, to initiate the pardon process. He was eventually found sleeping under a tree and shot 400 times.

The alleged victim maintained on Friday that she was not a liar and opposed the pardons before they were granted.

But just before those trials began, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot Irvin and Shepherd, claiming the handcuffed men tried to escape as he transferred him from prison to a jail.

In 2016 their families received apologies from both Groveland city officials and Lake County officials and in 2017 they got a similar apology from the state legislature with a recommendation for full pardons to the men. Scott, now a USA senator, never took action.

At his next trial, Irvin - who was represented by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall - was sentenced to death again.

Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison. Greenlee, who was paroled in 1960, died in 2012. DeSantis replaced Scott as governor on Tuesday.

Padgett claimed that on the night of July 16, 1949, her vehicle broke down in Groveland.

"Y'all just don't know what kind of horror I've been through for all these many years, " she said.

"My father was tortured, he was hung down in the basement over a hot pipe by his hands", said Carol Greenlee, Charles Greenlee's daughter.

Despite the pain the family went through, Greenlee's brother, Wade, said his parents always taught their children to love and not hate.

"It never happened. You all are liars", said Beverly Robinson, a niece of one of the accused men.

"I'm begging you not to give them pardons because they done it", Padgett Upshaw said.

"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.

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis also voted for the pardons.

Friday's discussions were originally indicated to be preliminary in nature, meant to allow the board, consisting of DeSantis, the new attorney general, Ashley Moody, chief financial officer, Jimmy Patronis, and agricultural commissioner, Nikki Fried, Florida's only statewide-elected Democrat, to "get a handle" on the case and plot a timeline. As such, any consolation derived from the pardon mainly benefits the men's families and those who advocated on their behalf.

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 awful".

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