Four young black men were charged in 1949 with the rape of a white teenage girl in the United States, some were convicted, others were cruelly murdered before their sentencing.
Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas, known as the “Groveland Four”, and their families have fought for decades to have their innocence recognized.
And on Monday, 72 years later, justice was served: a Florida court judge finally cleared them of the charges against them.
But none have lived long enough to be exonerated from these unfair accusations.
In July 1949, Norma Padgett, a 17-year-old white teenager, told police that Greenlee, Irvin, Shepherd and Thomas attacked the car she and her husband were in on their way home from a ball.
In addition, she assured that the four young people had kidnapped and raped her in the city of Groveland, Florida, United States.
Despite insufficient evidence, Norma Padgett’s testimony changed the lives of young people who were between 16 and 26 at the time.
Shepherd and Irvin were in the military, and Thomas and Greenlee were married.
A jury of white men
Shortly after the alleged incident, Thomas was pursued by a group of over 1,000 men and received hundreds of shots.
The other three were severely beaten while in police custody, before being sentenced by a jury made up exclusively of whites.
To stop the beatings, Shepherd and Greenlee were forced to tell FBI agents that they had raped Padgett. Irvin has always claimed his innocence.
All three ended up with scars and bruises all over their bodies and broken teeth.
And soon after, Samuel Shepherd is shot dead by Sheriff Willis McCall while being transferred for a new trial.
Irvin, meanwhile, narrowly escaped execution in 1954 and his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment with probation. In 1969, a year after being granted parole, he died.
Greenlee, who was also sentenced to life in prison and paroled in 1962, lived with his family until his death in April 2012.
Suggestions of complicity
Heidi Davis, an administrative judge of the Lake County Court, overturned the convictions of Greenlee and Irvin on Monday.
The court also dismissed the charges against Thomas and Shepherd which never went to trial. Thomas was killed before he had a trial and Shepherd before a sentence was handed down.
Carol Greenlee, Greenlee’s daughter, noted that she has been seeking exoneration from charges against her father since the late 1960s, although he has forbidden her to do so because the case was so painful for her.
In August, a group of investigators spoke with a grandson of Jesse Hunter, the state attorney handling the case. Broward Hunter confessed to finding correspondence in his grandfather’s law firm suggesting that Jesse Hunter and the presiding judge knew the rape never happened.
Investigators were also skeptical of the evidence provided by James Yates, a deputy sheriff who was the state’s main witness in the 1949 and 1951 trials.
This case is considered a historic racial injustice.
In 2017, the Florida state government issued a “heartfelt apology” to the families of the four and recommended posthumous pardons.
The pardons came two years later in a unanimous vote, despite the alleged victim’s insistence that she had told the truth.
“We feel blessed”
Ahead of Monday’s decision, the families of the Groveland Four expressed emotionally that overturning those sentences could prompt a review of other similar convictions.
“We feel blessed. I hope this is a start because a lot of people haven’t had this opportunity. A lot of families haven’t had this opportunity,” said Aaron Newson, Thomas’s nephew, who couldn’t hold back tears while speaking.
“This country needs to come together,” he added.
Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee – who was 16 at the time and the youngest of the suspects – broke down in tears and collapsed into the arms of those accompanying her after hearing the decision.
“If you know something is right, stand up for it,” she later exclaimed. “Be constant.”
“Officials, disguised as peacekeepers”
It was the local prosecutor, Bill Gladson, who began a month ago the procedure for the four men to be officially exonerated.
“We followed the evidence to see where it led us and we ended up at that point,” he said after the hearing, which took place at the same location as the trials at the time.
In his petition filed in October, Gladson wrote that today no “impartial” prosecutor would even consider the charges, and that the evidence “strongly” suggests that “the sheriff, judge and prosecutor have only made sure of the charges. ‘get guilty verdicts in this case. “
“Officials, disguised as peacekeepers and disguised as ministers of justice, ignored their oaths and sparked a series of events that forever destroyed these men, their families and a community,” Gladson continued.
“I have never witnessed a more complete collapse of the criminal justice system than this one.”
The story of the Groveland Four was told in the book “Devil in the Grove” by Gilbert King, who was interviewed by the prosecutor as part of his review of the case.
The book, published in 2012, won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 2013.
Charles Greenlee was the only one of the Groveland Four who lived to read the book, but he died soon after it was published.
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The tragic story of the ‘Groveland Four’ wrongly convicted of rape and exonerated 72 years later – BBC News Africa