Nov 22, 2021 - Politics & Policy

4 Black men wrongly charged with rape are exonerated after 72 years

A man and two woman stand behind a granite monument with a plaque that reads "In Memory of the Groveland Four" under an image of four young men.

Relatives of the Groveland Four gather at the just-unveiled monument in front of the Old Lake County courthouse in Tavares, Fla., in February last year. Photo: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Four Black men wrongly charged with rape were exonerated Monday, more than 70 after being convicted of what prosecutors now say were baseless charges.

Why it matters: Prosecutors said the case against the men, who all died before it was re-examined by Florida officials, "lacked due process and would not be tried today," the New York Times reports.

Context: The accused, Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas, came to be known as the Groveland Four.

Background: On July 16, 1949, a 17-year-old white woman and her estranged husband told police in Lake County, Fla., the four men had stopped to help with a broken down car when they took the woman from the car and raped her, per the NYT.

  • Following the accusations, Thomas was killed by a mob after he fled Lake County.
  • The three other men were convicted by an all-white jury. Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to death and Greenlee to life in prison, according to the NYT.
  • NCAAP lawyers appealed the convictions to the Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned them and instructed a lower court to order a retrial.
  • In 1951, a Lake County sheriff fatally shot Shepherd and injured Irvin as they were being taken to a pretrial hearing leading up to the retrial, AP notes.
  • Irvin and Greenlee were later convicted again. Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison, as was Irvin after his original death sentence was commuted.
  • Irvin was granted parole in 1968 and died a year later, per NBC News. Greenlee, who was 16 when he was charged, was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012 at age 78.

Driving the news: In August, investigators obtained information from Jesse Hunter, the state attorney who prosecuted the case, which suggested Hunter and the judge who presided over the 1951 retrial knew that the alleged rape never happened, per the NYT.

  • In April 2017, the state of Florida issued an official apology to the families of the Groveland Four.
  • Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) pardoned the four men in January 2019, one month after the Department of Law Enforcement was ordered to review the case.
  • The woman who said she was raped testified at the clemency board hearing against the pardons, the NYT notes.

What they're saying: In the motion filed in October to clear all four men of the charges, Bill Gladson, state attorney for the Fifth Judicial Circuit, wrote:

"Given these facts today, no fair-minded prosecutor would even consider filing these charges and no reasonable jury would convict. The evidence strongly suggests that the sheriff, the judge, and the prosecutor all but ensured guilty verdicts in this case. These officials, disguised as keepers of the peace and masquerading as ministers of justice, disregarded their oaths, and set in motion a series of events that forever destroyed these men, their families, and a community. I have not witnessed a more complete breakdown of the criminal justice system, nor do I ever expect I will again."
  • Aaron Newson, Thomas' nephew, cried at the news, saying "I hope that this is a start because lot of people didn't get this opportunity," AP reports.
  • "A lot of families didn’t get this opportunity. Maybe they will. This country needs to come together."
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