Four Black Men Exonerated 72 Years After Being Wrongly Accused of Rape in Florida

A United States judge on Nov. 22 officially cleared four young Black men who were wrongly accused of raping a white teenager in 1949.

Circuit Court Judge Heidi Davis in Lake County, Florida cleared the charges against Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas — who came to be known as the Groveland Four — and issued a ruling that effectively exonerated them of the crime.

The ruling came after State Attorney Bill Gladson filed a motion in October to exonerate the men.

“We followed the evidence to see where it led us, and it led us to this moment,” Gladson told a press conference after the ruling.

None of the men — who were aged between 16 and 26 when they were accused — are still alive.

The case is considered one of the greatest miscarriages of justice during the Jim Crow-era in Florida.

In July 1949, 17-year-old Norma Padgett accused the four men of abducting and raping her, prompting a manhunt.

A mob of white men led by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall tracked down Thomas and shot him more than 400 times.

Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd were arrested, beaten while in custody, and later convicted by all-white juries despite no evidence of a crime.

Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison while Shepherd and Irvin received the death penalty.

While Shepherd and Irvin were being transported from jail for a retrial, McCall shot the men and claimed they tried to escape. Irvin survived, but was convicted despite testimony from a federal agent who said prosecutors manufactured evidence against the men.

Irvin initially received a death penalty, but his sentence was later commuted to life in prison. He was eventually paroled in 1968, then died the following year.

Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012.


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