The four men have died since the allegations were first filed, but the recent exoneration is thought to add 'more integrity to the court system today.'
Trigger Warning: Descriptions of Sexual Assault, Institutional Racism, Violence Against Black Men
In 1949, Norma Padgett—a white woman—falsely accused Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas of abducting and raping her at gunpoint. The four Black men quickly became known as the "Groveland Four," because Padgett set off a manhunt that led to an onslaught of violence against the Black residents of Groveland, near Orlando. Now, seven decades later, the four men have finally been granted "full justice" as a judge formally dismissed the charges. Regardless of Padgett's accusation, the case was bridled with prosecutorial misconduct and the fabrication of evidence at the time, NBC News reports.
BREAKING: Four Black men, known as the Groveland Four, are posthumously exonerated for 1949 rape case. https://t.co/jH8XxTG7Xp— NBC News (@NBCNews) November 22, 2021
The initial manhunt mobilized the National Guard and prompted Thurgood Marshall, a lead attorney for the NAACP at the time, to take up the cause of the Groveland Four. While the men may have received justice today, they have all passed. Notably, Thomas was gunned down by a mob as a result of Padgett's accusations. In 2019, the men were granted a posthumous pardon by Governor Ron DeSantis. However, on Monday morning, a circuit court judge in Lake County went even further by clearing the charges against the Groveland Four. The judge issued a ruling that effectively exonerated them of the crime.
More than 70 years after they were wrongfully convicted, the Groveland Four have been posthumously exonerated. https://t.co/dEFcCUfYK2— The Innocence Project (@innocence) November 23, 2021
Local prosecutor Bill Gladson made this possible by filing paperwork to throw out Thomas' and Shepherd's indictments and set aside the sentences and judgments imposed on Greenlee and Irvin. He stated at a news conference following the judge's decision, "We followed the evidence to see where it led us, and it led us to this moment." As the judge formally dismissed the charges, Carol Greenlee, the daughter of Charles Greenlee, who at 16 years old was the youngest of the suspects, wept and fell into the arms of those next to her. "If you know something is right, stand up for it," she said. "Be persistent." Earlier, after proclamations from the governor and the state Legislature and a monument dedicated in honor of the Groveland Four, the daughter had said she and her family were awaiting "full justice" from the judicial branch to feel vindicated.
Judge exonerates Groveland Four in notorious rape case from 1949 - Orlando Sentinel. All 4 are deceased. It takes way too long, kudos to those who persisted in the struggle. @MakingAMurderer https://t.co/CG6tbEYrYN— Kathleen Zellner (@ZellnerLaw) November 22, 2021
Marshall's son, Thurgood Marshall Jr., was among those who traveled to Florida to witness the court's decision. He shared at the news conference, "There are countless people we need to remember who suffered similar fates who have been lost to history. 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." The Groveland Four's case is but one example of how the justice system protects white women at the cost of Black men's lives and justifies the oppression of Black people's rights. Author Gilbert King investigated the case in his book "Devil in the Grove." It won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2013. According to King, the appeal to ask a judge to dismiss charges against the four men was not based on whether Padgett may be lying, but rather on the prosecutorial misconduct and the fabrication of evidence at the time.
Groveland Four: US judge clears men wrongly accused of rape after 72 years https://t.co/yudaKXfX1x— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) November 22, 2021
This is a belief echoed by Gladson. "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," he wrote in his motion. "I have not witnessed a more complete breakdown of the criminal justice system." Thus, this dismissal is a means of correcting historical harms. King affirmed, "Sometimes, by going back into the past and correcting a gross injustice, it adds more integrity to the court system today."