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Jimmy Patronis seeking Groveland Four pardons

Pardons for the Groveland Four are heading for a hearing.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said Wednesday that he is sending a letter to the Florida Office of Executive Clemency invoking Rule 17, which allows any member of the Florida Cabinet to place a case “of exceptional merit” on the upcoming agenda of the Florida Executive Clemency Board, which is made up of the Governor and other Cabinet members.

It’s unclear whether that would present the case of the Groveland Four to the current Cabinet, led by Gov. Rick Scott, or the next, led by Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis. The last meeting under Scott was scheduled for Dec. 5 but was postponed. It has not been rescheduled. The Groveland Four case was not on the agenda before that meeting was delayed.

Anticipation Wednesday suggested the pardons request likely would go to the next Cabinet.

The next scheduled meeting is in March, which would include DeSantis, Patronis, Attorney General-elect Ashley Moody, and Agriculture Commissioner-elect Nikki Fried, who already is on record as supporting pardons for the two black men who were convicted of raping a white woman in a 1949 case that evidence now shows was a false charge and a farcical trial. Two other black men accused in the case were shot to death in custody, in one of the grimmest moment of racism of Florida’s Jim Crow era.

For such pardons to be granted, they require yes votes from two board members plus the Governor. Neither Scott nor DeSantis has publicly taken a position on the pardons. Moody has indicated she is interested in taking up the case.

“The time to do the right thing is now,” Patronis said Wednesday. “I’m ready to put it on the agenda and have it heard.”

Patronis’ letter also instructs the Office of Executive Clemency to immediately begin conducting their clemency report.

“Oh Lord, thank you, Jesus! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” said Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee, one of the men who was convicted and sent to prison, and now would be up for a full pardon.

“I appreciate Chief Financial Officer Patronis’ timely action on this important issue that has been ignored for far too long. The time for justice has come — the Groveland Four and the families deserve for this to be considered and for the past injustices to be recognized and condemned,” Fried said in a statement she issued later Wednesday.

News of Patronis’ decision spread fast late Wednesday. Advocates for pardons for the Groveland Four heard from the office of current Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam that Patronis was seeking the pardons of Greenlee and Walter Irvin, the two accused man who lived long enough to stand trial, be convicted and get sent to prison.

The other two, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas, were shot to death in custody.

Groveland Four pardons advocate Josh Venkataraman, who actually filed a request for the pardons in the summer of 2017, said Putnam’s office told him the case likely will appear on the March agenda. Venkataraman also got in touch with some of the other family members of the Groveland Four Wednesday afternoon, including Henrietta Irvin, sister of Walter Irvin.

“She said that’s wonderful news. She’s been waiting her whole life for this,” Venkataraman said.

This is a case that waited decades to return to the attention of Florida’s political leaders, partly through the publication of two books, Gary Corsiar‘s The Groveland Four: The Sad Saga of a Legal Lynching, published in 2012, and Gilbert King‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning Devil in the Grove, published in 2013.

Then-state Sen. Geraldine Thompson of Orlando first brought it to the Legislature’s attention in 2016, and the following year, when she was out of office, a resolution pushed by state Sen. Gary Farmer and state Rep. Bobby Dubose, both Fort Lauderdale Democrats, was approved unanimously by both houses, calling the case a travesty of “grave injustices,” apologizing, and calling for expedited pardons.

Yet in seven Clemency Board meetings since, the case was never placed on the board’s agenda. The Dec. 5 meeting was postponed because of the funeral for former President George H.W. Bush

On Tuesday night, Florida’s Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio took to the floor of the U.S. Senate joining the call for pardons for the Groveland Four. He said much the same thing that Patronis said Wednesday.

“It is time to do the right thing for the Groveland Four,” Rubio told the U.S. Senate.

Chris Hand represents a coalition of Groveland Four advocates and family members and released this statement:

“Justice for the Groveland Four has seen more progress this month than at any time since the Florida Legislature unanimously requested a pardon in April 2017.

“We are very grateful to Commissioner-elect Nikki Fried, Attorney General-elect Ashley Moody, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis for their leadership in working to end a nearly 70-year-old injustice.

“It is time for the Clemency Board to grant a full pardon, so that Charles Greenlee, WaIter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, Ernest Thomas and their families are no longer denied the justice they have long deserved.”

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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