4 Young Black Men Exonerated in 1949 Florida Rape Case That Led to 2 Being Gunned Down

Four young Black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949 were officially exonerated Monday after a reexamination of the Florida case, the Associated Press reported.

Judge Heidi Davis dismissed the indictments for two of those men, Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd, who were fatally shot in separate instances after the rape accusation.

Davis also set aside the convictions and sentences for Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin, the other two members of the so-called Groveland Four. The four ranged in age from 16 to 26 when they were accused of the assault in the central Florida town of Groveland.

Bill Gladson, a local state attorney, moved to have the men exonerated last month, the AP reported. "We followed the evidence to see where it led us, and it led us to this moment," Gladson said after a hearing in the Lake County courthouse where the original trials took place.

Willis McCall, the local sheriff, fatally shot Shepherd and wounded Irvin in 1951 while driving them to a second trial after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their initial convictions on the ground that no evidence had been presented. Though McCall said they had attempted to escape, Irvin said the sheriff and his deputy shot them for no reason, according to the AP. Thomas died when a posse shot him more than 400 times after the woman made the rape accusation.

The families of the men voiced hope that other Black men and women who may have been falsely accused or convicted of crimes during the Jim Crow era will also have their names cleared.

"We are blessed. I hope that this is a start because a lot of people didn't get this opportunity. A lot of families didn't get this opportunity. Maybe they will," said Aaron Newson, Thomas' nephew. "This country needs to come together," he added, breaking into tears.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Groveland Four Exonerated
Florida has formally cleared four Black men who were falsely accused of raping a white woman more than seven decades ago. Above, relatives of the Groveland Four gather at the just-unveiled monument in front of the Old Lake County courthouse in Tavares, Florida, on February 21, 2020. Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP

Gilbert King, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2012 book about the case, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, attended the hearing with Thurgood Marshall Jr., the son of the late U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Thurgood Marshall Sr., then with the NAACP, represented Irvin during his second trial, but an all-white jury again convicted him and he was sentenced to death. Irvin narrowly escaped execution in 1954, and Governor LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence to life with parole. Greenlee, also sentenced to life, was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012. Irvin died in 1969, one year after he was paroled.

King said having the men exonerated in the same building where the trials were held was "of significant importance because upstairs there was a courtroom where 72 years ago [an] abomination of justice took place." He praised Gladson for pursuing justice.

"He could have easily kicked this case down the road and let someone else deal with it," King said. "Even when it got frustrating and he felt there was no path toward this day, he dug in harder."

Marshall Jr. said the Groveland Four "haunted" his father perhaps more than any other case. "But he believed better days were ahead," Marshall Jr. said.

The Florida Legislature in 2017 formally apologized to the men's families. Governor Ron DeSantis and the state's three-member Cabinet granted posthumous pardons more than two years ago. In 2018, then-Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi directed the state Department of Law Enforcement to review the case. Earlier this year, the agency referred its findings to Gladson for his review.

Gladson and an investigator interviewed the grandson of Jesse Hunter, the now-deceased prosecutor of two of the Groveland Four defendants. According to the grandson, Broward Hunter, his grandfather and a judge in the case knew there was no rape.

The grandson also suggested to Gladson, based on letters he found in his grandfather's office in 1971, that Willis may have shot Shepherd and Irvin because of the sheriff's involvement in an illegal gambling operation. Shepherd was believed to be involved with the gambling operation too, and Willis might have seen a rape case as "a way to get some people that were on his s*** list," Hunter told the prosecutor and investigator.

Gladson also said that James Yates, a deputy who served as a primary witness, likely fabricated evidence, including shoe casts.

The prosecutor also had Irvin's pants sent to a crime lab in September to test for semen, something that was never done at Irvin's trial, even though jurors were given the impression that the pants were stained. The results showed no evidence of semen, the motion said.

"The significance of this finding cannot be overstated," Gladson said in his motion.

Groveland Four Exonerated
Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, far left, and an unidentified man stand next to Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee, from left, in Florida in this undated image. State Library and Archives of Florida via AP