‘The Groveland Four’ were four young men and teenagers who endured one of the darkest known moments of Florida’s Jim Crow history when they were falsely accused of rape, then all of them were beaten, two of them were killed, and two were convicted and imprisoned on what legal researchers are now convinced was false evidence.
On Thursday the House Judicial Committee unanimously approved a House Resolution 631, declaring the story, which began with a 1949 incident on a Lake County back road outside of Groveland, to have been a “grave injustice.”
The bill declares that injustice toward Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas, offers an official apology on behalf of the state of Florida, exonerates them, and urges Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet to pardon Irvin and Greenlee, the two who lived long enough to be convicted and imprisoned.
“You’re going to get a unanimous vote on the house floor, I betcha,” Republican state Rep. Shawn Harrison of Tampa predicted for the co-sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Bobby DuBose of Fort Lauderdale.
A companion measure, Senate Resolution 920, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Gary Farmer of Fort Lauderdale, already is heading for the Senate floor.
The story, as DuBose and the bill itself laid out for the committee, was one of two horrific episodes from Florida’s past that the committee sat through Thursday, including the earlier descriptions the committee received of the horrors of the Dozier School for Boys. The Groveland Four story was no less powerful.
The Groveland Four, whose story was told in detail in the 2012 Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Devil In The Grove, by Gilbert King, were falsely accused by a 17-year-old, white, married, teen girl and her estranged husband of raping her.
Thomas was then shot dead by a posse. Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd were arrested and severely beaten in custody until Greenlee and Shepherd offered false confessions. The three were tried and convicted, even though all had alibis and much of the testimony and evidence against them appeared manufactured. Greenlee, who was only 16 at the time of the crime, got a life sentence, while Irvin and Shepherd were given death sentences. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned their cases. Before the new trials, Irvin and Shepherd were shot in custody, and Shepherd died. Greenlee and Irvin were re-tried and re-convicted.
In 1955 Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted Irvin’s sentence to life in prison, and he was paroled in 1968. The next year, hours after he made his first return to Lake County, for an uncle’s funeral, he died under mysterious circumstances. Greenlee was paroled in 1962, and died in 2012.
The matter was first brought to the Legislature by then-state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, an Orlando Democrat who was unable to get it through in several tries. This time, so far, DuBose and Farmer are finding unanimous backings.
State Rep. Larry Metz, the Republican whose district includes Groveland, cautioned that the Legislature cannot know what happened that night in 1949; but that he is is convinced the Groveland Four underwent nothing but “a grave miscarriage of justice” after that.
“So many horrific things occurred at this time,” Metz said.
DuBose said he had met some of their family members, and besides all the other horrors, the family had to endure shame, because the community thought the four were rapists.
“Things like this do carry down fro generation to generation. Although we can’t change the past, we can correct, and change the future,” DuBose said. “This means so much more to this family than I can express.”