Pardons could come Friday for Groveland 4, 70 years after rape allegations

Largely considered one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Jim Crow-era Florida, the families of the Groveland Four may soon see their loved ones names cleared.

On Friday, the State Clemency Board will meet to consider a posthumous pardon of the four black men who were accused, and now believed wrongly convicted, of kidnapping and raping a 17 year-old white woman in 1949.

According to the Orange County Regional History Center, Norma Padgett and her husband claimed that, while their car was broken down at road-side, four men stopped to help but eventually took the car as well as Padgett. The couple accused Charles Greenlee, Earnest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, and Walter Irvin of raping and kidnapping Padgett that night.

In the days that followed, one of the men, Ernest Thomas, was killed by a posse and the other three were quickly arrested.

Following their arrests they were convicted, two were sentenced to death, and when the case was appealed and overturned by the Supreme Court, one was shot dead at roadside by then Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall.

In the years and decades that would follow though, new evidence would slowly pour out in favor of those four men. Among it: evidence one of them was in jail the night of the alleged incident, accounts that the men were tortured into confessions in the basement of the Lake County Courthouse, repeated inconsistencies in the stories surrounding the men’s convictions, and even claims by one of the 4 that Padgett admitted to him she made the story up, some years later.

All of the evidence was compiled in the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King.

It’s now widely believed the Groveland Four were wrongly convicted. In 2016 their families received apologies from both Groveland city officials and Lake County officials and in 2017 they got a similar apology from the state legislature with a recommendation for full pardons to the men.

Now, the board made up of the governor, attorney general, agriculture secretary and chief financial officer could finally clear those men’s names once and for all.

There is question whether the board will simply discuss the matter Friday or actually take action.
However, families from both sides of the case plan to be there including Norma Padgett’s son Curtis Upshaw who still stands by his mother’s account, saying claims she ever admitted to lying are false.

"If they held a gun to my mother's head and done the things she said they done, they deserve it,” said Upshaw in a phone interview Thursday.

Members of the Central Florida Urban League are applauding the move though and calling for closure on the case.

“Only three days into his new administration, we applaud the Governor and the cabinet for making this issue a top priority,” said Glenton Gilzean Jr., President and CEO of the Central Florida Urban League in a statement. “While 70 years have passed since the Groveland Four were wrongfully accused, it is never too late to officially restore their reputations and right a tremendous wrong.”