Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney William Gladson sought Monday to posthumously fully clear the Groveland Four of any official charges or convictions that they raped a woman in 1949, based on a new state investigation.
Gladson filed a court motion Monday seeking to dismiss indictments that were brought in 1949 against Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd, to set aside indictments, judgments and sentences brought against Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin, and to “correct the record with newly discovered evidence in the case known as ‘The Groveland Four.'”
Now all deceased, the four were young Black men or teens falsely accused of raping a White woman in Lake County in 1949. In a case embodying horrific injustices of Florida’s Jim Crow era, Thomas was killed by a posse, Shepherd was killed in custody, and Greenlee and Irvin were convicted and imprisoned.
“Even a casual review of the record reveals that these four men were deprived of the fundamental due process rights that are afforded to all Americans,” Gladson wrote in his motion filed Monday at the 5th Judicial Circuit Court in Lake County.
“I have not witnessed a more complete breakdown of the criminal justice system, nor do I ever expect I will again,” Gladson declared in his brief.
Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee, responded with gratitude and hope.
“My family and I are deeply grateful to State Attorney Bill Gladson and his team for their dedicated efforts to review the case and right the wrongs committed against the Groveland Four more than seven decades ago,” she said in a statement released Monday. “While we are thankful the Florida Legislature apologized and the Board of Executive Clemency granted pardons, full justice depends on action from the judicial branch. I hope this motion will result in that full justice for my father Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas.”
The case was a cause célèbre of the 1940s and ’50s Civil Rights movement, and Greenlee and Irvin had been represented by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. But justice did not prevail at the time.
Then, with the publication of a couple of investigative books, which drew on FBI files and other sources that were not used in the trials, and efforts from Rep. Geraldine Thompson and others, the case drew new life in recent years. In 2017 the Florida Legislature unanimously approved a resolution declaring the case was a miscarriage of justice, apologizing, and calling for pardons. Those pardons came from the Board of Executive Clemency in early 2019, in one of the first actions in office by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
But family members and advocates such as Thompson and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried always wanted full exonerations — for Florida to declare that the four did not do it.
“Today, our state is one step closer to righteous justice for the four wrongly-accused men of Groveland,” Fried, now a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said in a statement issued Monday. “Before even taking office, I pledged to pursue the innocence of the Groveland Four as a member of Florida’s Clemency Board. Through their pardons in 2019 and continued pressure for their exoneration, and through the prayers of their families and the relentless quest for the truth, this motion will make clear that Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas suffered a racist miscarriage of justice for more than seventy years for crimes they never committed.”
To support possible exonerations, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched an investigation in December 2018, ordered by then-Attorney General Pam Bondi shortly before she left office. The FDLE sent its investigative report to Gladson in July, recommending that he seek to dismiss the charges and convictions.
“Given these facts today, no fair-minded prosecutor would even consider filing these charges, and no reasonable jury would convict,” Gladson wrote. “The evidence strongly suggests that the sheriff, the judge, and the prosecutor all but ensured guilty verdicts in this case. These 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.”
Gary Corsair, author of “Legal Lynching: The Sad Saga of the Groveland Four,” said a declaration of innocence of Greenlee Irvin, Shepherd, and Thomas “was something I have dreamed of since I first published a book exposing the gross miscarriage of justice that occured in Lake County in the summer of 1949. The so-called Groveland rape case should have never gone to trial, and guilty verdicts should never have been rendered. The very fact that the testimony of accuser and her husband established a timeline that PROVED that Charles Greenlee could not have assaulted her should have led to acquital in 1949 and should have promoted an investigation long before Pam Bondi ordered an investigation in 2018. Thankfully, voices crying out from the grave have finally been heard. I only wish that Greenlee, Irvin, Shepherd and Thomas were alive to see their names cleared.”