Jan. 11 (UPI) — Florida’s clemency board voted Friday to grant full pardons to four African-American men wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in 1949.
The board granted the posthumous pardons to Earnest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin and Charles Greenlee — the so-called Groveland Four — in a unanimous vote called by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“For seventy years, these four men have had their history wrongly written for crimes they did not commit,” the newly installed governor said. “As I have said before, while that is a long time to wait, it is never too late to do the right thing.”
In 1949, a 17-year-old girl accused the four men of attacking and raping her. Police arrested Shepherd, Irvin and Greenlee and beat them until the latter two confessed.
A mob of about 1,000 people hunted down Thomas before he could be arrested and shot him more than 400 times.
Officials arrested and threatened family members of the suspects, and white mobs rioted, burned down Shepherd’s home and demanded the suspects be lynched. During the trial, defense attorneys weren’t allowed to bring in witnesses or evidence to prove innocence.
An all-white jury convicted the three surviving suspects, sentencing Greenlee, 16 at the time, to life in prison, and Shepherd and Irvin to death.
Later, after the first trial, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot and killed Shepherd while transferring him to another jail, saying he and Irvin tried to escape. He also shot Irvin three times, including once in the neck as he lay on the ground.
Irvin survived the shooting and told federal investigators he and Shepherd hadn’t tried to escape. The shooting, as well as the shooting that killed Thomas, were considered justified by authorities.
“I believe the rule of law is society’s sacred bond,” DeSantis said. “When it is trampled, we all suffer. For the Groveland Four, the truth was buried. The perpetrators celebrated. But justice has cried out from that day until this.”
Speaking to UPI in December, Greenlee’s daughter, Carol Crawley, said her father never sought a pardon during his lifetime. He died at the age of 79 in 2012, 51 years after his release from prison.
“He would be overwhelmed just as I am,” she said. “Who wouldn’t want their name to be cleared?”