Judge exonerates Groveland Four in notorious rape case from 1949

ORLANDO, Fla. — A judge Monday restored the constitutional right to “presumption of innocence” for the Groveland Four, granting a prosecutor’s motion to throw out indictments and convictions that ruined the lives of the four Black men accused seven decades ago of raping a 17-year-old white girl.

Calling it an “unimaginable privilege,” Circuit Judge Heidi Davis cleared the names of Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas, all now dead, to correct one of Florida’s greatest miscarriages of justice from the Jim Crow era.

“This is a glory hallelujah day,” said Shepherd’s cousin, Beverly Robinson, at a news conference afterward.

The judge’s decision was met with applause from two courtrooms full of observers — one group watching in person, one watching a live-stream of the hearing. Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee, wept and fell into the arms of family members outside the courtroom.

“All my life I’ve felt as if a cloud hung over me,” she said later. “It’s gone now. I’m not a rapist’s daughter.”

Eddie Irvin, 59, nephew of Walter Irvin, said his joy was tempered because his uncle and other relatives, especially his grandmother, were not alive to hear a judge declare that Walter was an innocent man — a fact which they never, ever doubted.

Irvin also said two of the families have one more fight looming. He said both his uncle and Samuel Shepherd were dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army because of the false rape accusation, and the families hope to see that corrected, too.

The men ranged in age from 16 to 26 in 1949 when they were accused of raping Norma Lee Padgett.

Greenlee at 16 was the youngest.

Padgett, now 89, declined her right to appear at the proceeding and present evidence or testimony, said State Attorney William Gladson, who provided the judge with “newly discovered evidence” to bolster the request for exoneration of the men.

She has never recanted her allegations.

At a clemency hearing in 2019, when the men were posthumously pardoned by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Cabinet, Padgett spoke from a wheelchair, pleading with the panel, “I’m begging you all not to give them pardon because they done it.”

But a doctor’s examination of Padgett the morning after the alleged assault cast doubt on her rape accusations.

The new evidence was unearthed in a battered brown box, marked “exhibits 6-9-52 Walter Lee Irvin - vs - State.”

It contained a pair of Irvin’s trousers which had “smears” on the front that had never been scientifically analyzed.

Gladson had the pants analyzed at the FDLE lab in Orlando which reported, “Using microscopy, no semen was identified ...”

“The significance of this finding cannot be overstated,” Gladson said.

“The state never had his pants tested for the presence of semen though they had the ability to do so,“ he argued. “Instead, the jury was left with the improper suggestion that Walter Irvin’s pants contained evidence of the rape for which he was ultimately convicted.”

Until then, Gladson said he was prepared to draft a remorseful and sympathetic letter to the families closing the case.

“I knew what had happened was wrong but I couldn’t do anything about it without new evidence,” he said.

Among observers of the historic hearing were Gilbert King, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Devil in The Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America,” which chronicled a detailed account of the case. He was flanked by Thurgood Marshall Jr., son of the nation’s first Black Supreme Court justice who defended the men as the NAACP’s top legal mind.

“There are countless people we need to remember who suffered similar fates who have been lost to history,” Marshall said Monday. “Perhaps of all the cases my father worked on, this one haunted him for many, many years. And he believed there were better days ahead.”

Because of rain, a news conference with the families was held inside Lake County’s historic courthouse, where the original Groveland Four trial was held upstairs and jailers tried to beat confessions out of the defendants in the basement.

On the first floor is a historical museum with a modest kiosk dedicated to the Groveland Four. Curators added a new feature to the exhibit Monday:

A note that reads: “EXONERATED! November 22, 2021.”