Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee, and Walter Irvin, members of a group of falsely imprisoned Black men accused of the rape of a white woman in 1949, were posthumously exonerated on Monday by the state of Florida.
The “Groveland Four,” as they would come to be named, were imprisoned with life sentences in one of the worst displays of Jim Crow era justice in Florida, sentenced with zero evidence for the crime.
Florida Judge Heidi Davis dismissed the indictments of Ernest Thomas, Walter Irwin, and Samuel Shepherd, who were shot by authorities claiming “self-defense” on their way to try for an appeal. She also tossed the conviction for Charles Greenlee, who died in prison in 2012, serving his life sentence.
In the 1949 rape case, then 17-year-old Norma Padgett said that four black men had raped her at gunpoint. She is now 80 years old, and though her claims may still be true, the state of Florida has finally recognized that there was no evidence to tie the Groveland Four to the crime.
After sharing her story in 1949, NBC News reported that a mob of hundreds of white men stormed the area, aided by law enforcement, where they found Ernest Thomas asleep by a swamp and shot hit over 400 times, simply because he was Black and in proximity of the crime that happened before.
Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd were all arrested shortly after, where they were given the death penalty without a fair trial and convicted by an all-white jury.
Thurgood Marshall, a lead attorney for the NAACP at the time, later took up their case and became the first Black Supreme Court Justice. On their way to a retrial, which Marshall secured, Irwin and Samuel Shepherd were shot dead by the police.
“There are countless people we need to remember who suffered similar fates who have been lost to history,” said Thurgood Marshall, Jr., the lawyer’s son. He traveled to Florida to hear the court’s decision, two years after the Groveland Four were posthumously pardoned.
“Of all the cases my father worked on, this one haunted him for many, many years,” he said. “And he believed there were better days ahead.”
Carol Greenlee, the daughter of Charles Greenlee, was also in attendance on Monday, telling reporters at a news conference that it pays to “be persistent.”
Weeping as the judge exonerated her father, she said that “If you know something is right, stand up for it.”
“I would not hate, but I will love and embrace all of those who did not know at the time that my father was a caring and loving and compassionate person that did not rape anybody,” she said. “I stand here today to say thank you.”
According to ABC News, evidence in the case was also fabricated by law enforcement, who tricked the jury into thinking shoe sizes matched up, as well as semen samples on Irwin’s pants that were declared in a lab to not be matches.
Information into a potential illegally gambling ring that Samuel Shepherd and Irwin were a part of was also dug up, claiming that the officer that shot them was also involved in the scheme. It could have been possible that he shot them before the retrial as a way to cover his tracks.
Gilbert King, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the case, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, was also in attendance, alongside Aaron Newson, Ernest Thomas’ nephew.
“We are blessed,” said Newson. “I hope that this is a start because lot of people didn’t get this opportunity. A lot of families didn’t get this opportunity. Maybe they will… this country needs to come together.”