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The Groveland Four: (L to R) Jailer Reuben Hatcher, Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall (Image via Gary Corsair/Orlando Sentinel)

Federal

Marco Rubio calls for justice for Groveland Four

Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio called for the Florida Cabinet to provide an action of posthumous justice for the Groveland Four during a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate Tuesday night, declaring, “It is time to do the right thing for the Groveland Four!”

Rubio’s comments brought to the U.S. Capitol the case of the four young, black men [two were still teenagers,] who were accused on false charges of raping a white woman outside Groveland in 1949. Two, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas, were shot to death in custody; and two, Walter Irvin and Charles Greenlee, were convicted and sentenced to prison for crimes that later-released evidence overwhelmingly showed never happened.

After two books revealed horrifying details about the case, the families have come forward in recent years demanding belated justice. And in April 2017 the Florida Legislature declared, in a unanimously-approved resolution, the episode to be a dark chapter in Florida’s history of racial history, issued an deep apology, and called on Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet to expedite pardons for the victims. Those pardons have not come.

On Tuesday night, Rubio joined the call. But rather than call on Scott or the other three members of the current Cabinet, who make up Florida’s Executive Clemency Board, Rubio [who soon will be joined by Scott in the Senate] turned to the next Cabinet, that of Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis, returning Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, Attorney General-elect Ashley Moody, and Agriculture Commissioner-elect Nikki Fried.

Of the four, only Fried is on record so far saying she wants pardons. She has said she wants them swiftly.

That’s what Rubio wants too, he told the U.S. Senate.

“I come here today to talk about this case because — while there is nothing we can do to give Mr. Thomas or Mr. Shepherd back their lives, there’s nothing we can do to give Mr. Irvin or Mr. Greenlee back the years they spent in jail for a crime they did not commit — we can give these men back their good name,” Rubio told the U.S. Senate. “What we can do now, as a state in Florida, is seek the forgiveness of their families and of them for the grave injustice that was committed against them. And this is what I come here to the Senate today to urge the new Florida cabinet to do as soon as possible after they take office next month.

“Because after 70 years, it is time for Florida to do the right thing for “the Groveland Four,” Rubio concluded.

Rubio’s comments come two weeks after the last scheduled meeting of the Florida Executive Clemency Board under the administration of Scott was postponed indefinitely without scheduling consideration of requested posthumous pardons for the only two members of the Groveland Four who survived long enough to be convinced, Irvin and Greenlee. [Irvin died in 1969, and Greenlee in 2012.]

The meeting was postponed because it was set for the same day as the funeral for former President George H.W. Bush. No makeup date has been scheduled.

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Scott and the other members of the current Cabinet, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, and Patronis, have not said publicly why they have not addressed the pardons sought by the families, the Florida Legislature, and now Rubio, through seven meetings of the Executive Clemency Board. Over the course of 20 months since the Legislature approved its resolution calling for the pardons, Scott’s office has repeatedly released a short-worded statement saying only that he is aware of the case, opposes racism and is reviewing options.

Scott and the other members of the current Cabinet have not spoken in any length about the Groveland Four, as Rubio did in a six-minute speech Tuesday night, calling the case a “unique” and “horrifying” injustice.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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