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After Pardon, Will 'Groveland Four' Be Exonerated?

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Lake County, Fla., Sheriff Willis McCall and an unidentified man stand next to Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee. The three were accused of rape in 1949, along with a fourth man. (State Archives of Florida)
Lake County, Fla., Sheriff Willis McCall and an unidentified man stand next to Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee. The three were accused of rape in 1949, along with a fourth man. (State Archives of Florida)
January 14, 2019

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Nearly 70 years after being accused of raping a white woman, four African-American men were posthumously pardoned on Friday by the state of Florida, but the families say they'd like to see an exoneration, which would officially declare their innocence.

The men known as the Groveland Four – Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas – were accused of the 1949 rape of then 17-year-old Norma Padgett, although there was little to no evidence supporting the claim, now seen as a racial injustice.

Padgett spoke publicly for the first time before Florida's new governor and Cabinet, insisting the rape did occur and urging officials not to pardon the men.

Gilbert King's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Devil in the Grove" helped thrust the case back into the national spotlight.

Speaking on The Rotunda podcast, King says he was surprised at Padgett's testimony since members of her own family had long said her story wasn't true.

"Some family members have come forward and said, 'We knew all along,'” he relates. “To me, it's very sad and tragic to see Norma Padgett sort of clinging to this story she said 70 years ago."

The men were convicted by an all-white jury. Evidence that could have exonerated them, including a doctor's conclusion that the teen probably wasn't raped, was withheld.

King says he's now helping with the newly launched Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation, which could lead to an exoneration.

Before becoming the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall took up the appeals of Irvin and Shepherd.

But just before trial, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot them both, claiming an attempted escape during a prison transfer.

Shepherd died and Irvin survived despite the ambulance refusing to transport a black patient.

"It was cold-blooded murder,” King maintains. “And so now, that's the official story that Florida has now signed on to with these pardons, and so to see the relief, after all these decades, and the cloud that these families have lived under having their names dragged through the mud in Lake County, that to me is the most inspiring thing."

Charges never were brought against any of the white officials involved in the cases.

Thomas fled when he was approached for arrest and a sheriff's posse hunted him down and shot him multiple times when they found him sleeping under a tree.

Trimmel Gomes, Public News Service - FL