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Sat, 07.16.1949

The ‘Groveland Four’ Case Begins

Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd, and Walter Irvin

*On this date in 1949, the episode and legal case of the “Groveland Four” began.  This was a wrongful arrest, murder, and conviction of four young Black men. 

The episode played out when Norma Padgett, a 17-year-old white woman, and her husband Willie, said that onthat date,they had been attacked by four young black men in Groveland, Florida; who stopped where the couple's car had stalled. Norma Padgett said she was taken away and raped, and Willie said he had been assaulted.

Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, age 16; Samuel Shepherd, age 22, and Walter Irvin, age 22, were identified by the police as suspects. Shepherd and Irvin were both Army veterans; and both Thomas and Greenlee were married.  Irvin and Shepherd were arrested shortly after Padgett reported the attack. The police took the men in their patrol car to a secluded spot.  Both men were beaten by police with blackjacks and fists and kicked as they lay crumpled on the ground, while being questioned if they had picked up a white girl. Afterward, they were taken to the spot where the crime happened. Deputy Yates inspected Shepherd's shoes, which he had worn the night before. Yates was frustrated to see that the soles did not match footprints in the ground at the scene. Irvin's were the same, but Irvin admitted that he was wearing a different pair of shoes. The two men were taken to Tavares jail, where they were interrogated in the basement, cuffed to overhead pipes and beaten.  

Charles Greenlee was a 16-year-old from Gainesville and was trying to find work with Ernest Thomas. Thomas had convinced Greenlee that there were plenty of jobs in Groveland. Greenlee was waiting at a rail depot to meet Thomas when he was arrested and brought to the police station under suspicion.  Greenlee was interrogated and beaten in a cell that night until he admitted to the rape of Norma Padgett. Thomas escaped capture and fled Lake County the following morning. Greenlee admitted to having been with Thomas. Police learned where Thomas lived and was hiding. Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall appointed a posse that tracked Thomas down days later in Madison County, Florida. He was shot multiple times and killed by the more-than-1,000-man posse; officers reported that Thomas was armed and reached for his weapon.  

According to the coroner's inquest, Lake County Sheriff McCall was at the scene when Thomas was shot. The coroner's jury determined that Thomas had been lawfully killed and ruled his death a justifiable homicide. The NAACP later said that the posse had never intended to arrest Thomas, but to kill him.  The Florida NAACP defense came from Orlando attorney Franklin Williams. After interviewing the three surviving suspects, Williams said each had independently stated that he was beaten by Lake County deputies.  Williams documented the visible evidence of their injuries. Shepherd’s injuries included scars on head, broken teeth, tooth puncture of upper lip, lash scars across back and chest, and scars on the wrist, which supported Shepherd's claim that he had been cuffed to a metal pipe. Irvin had similar injuries: body scars, wide bruises, lash marks, scars across wrists, and an apparently fractured jaw. Greenlee's injuries included a red and bruised left eye, scars on the right cheekbone and around the neck and groin, swollen testicles, and numerous cuts on his feet.  

Thurgood Marshall, the lead lawyer of the NAACP, pressed the Justice Department and the FBI to initiate a civil rights and domestic violence investigation into the beatings. Shepherd and Greenlee both told FBI agents that they confessed to raping Padgett in order to stop the beatings. Irvin never confessed and maintained his innocence. Marshall convinced the Justice Department that the beatings violated the men's rights, and the FBI dispatched agents to investigate. The FBI later concluded that Lake County deputies James Yates and Leroy Campbell had violated the Groveland men's civil rights and urged U.S. Attorney Herbert Phillips of Florida to prosecute, but a grand jury did not return indictments of the deputies.  

Likely fearing that a higher court would reverse any guilty verdicts, the prosecution never introduced the coerced confessions as evidence into the trial. There was uncertainty about whether Padgett was raped. The prosecution did not question Dr. Geoffrey, the physician who examined her, on the stand. Judge Truman Futch did not permit the defense to call the doctor as a witness. According to his records, Geoffrey could not tell whether she had been raped. He found no evidence of tears or wounds in the vagina other than the lacerations mentioned above. Laboratory analysis of a vaginal smear revealed no spermatozoa present in the vagina, nor any organisms resembling gonococci, which could have been other evidence of sex. There were no other gross signs of bruises, breaks in the skin or other signs of violence. 

Shepherd and Irvin said that they had been together drinking in Eatonville, Florida, the night of the alleged attack. Greenlee said he was nowhere near the other defendants on that night and that he had never met Shepherd and Irvin before. The defense accused Sheriff McCall's deputies of manufacturing evidence to win a conviction. All three men were convicted by the all-white jury. Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death, and Greenlee was sentenced to life, as he was a minor.  The NAACP took on assisting the defense in appeals. In 1951 Marshall led the defense in an appeal hearing for Irvin and Shepherd at the U.S. Supreme Court. It overturned the convictions of both men based on adverse pre-trial publicity and remanded the case to the lower court for a new trial. (Greenlee had not appealed his sentence of life imprisonment.)  

McCall was transporting Shepherd and Irvin from Raiford State Prison back to the Lake County jail in Tavares when he claimed to have a flat tire. Alone with the two handcuffed prisoners, McCall pulled down a dirt road to inspect the tire, outside Umatilla, Florida, north of Tavares. He claimed that Shepherd asked to relieve himself, and when the two prisoners, cuffed together, got out of the car, they attacked McCall. He drew his pistol and shot at them. The shooting took place on a dark country road outside the town. He shot each prisoner three times. Shepherd was killed instantly, and Irvin survived by playing dead.The following morning, Irvin told FBI agents and reporters at the hospital where he was taken for treatment that the shooting was unprovoked. He said McCall had shot him and Shepherd in cold blood, staging the scene to make it look like an escape attempt. Irvin shocked reporters by saying that Lake County Deputy James Yates had joined McCall at the scene, saw that Irvin was still breathing, and fired one last shot through Irvin's neck. Irvin survived.

The FBI later found a bullet buried in the ground beneath Irvin's blood spot that appeared to support his account of the shooting. A nail found in the front wheel of McCall's car appeared to have caused his claimed "tire trouble" that night. McCall said that he had no idea how the nail got there, but the FBI believed that it had been placed there.  An all-white coroner's jury, made up of many of McCall's friends, took half an hour to find Shepherd's death justified. They concluded that McCall had been acting in line of duty and in self-defense. McCall was cleared of any wrongdoing. After recovering from his shooting wounds, Irvin was tried again after refusing a deal from the prosecutor and Governor Fuller Warren that would have spared him from a death sentence if he pleaded guilty. His defense counsel, Thurgood Marshall, gained a change of venue to Marion County, Florida, because of the adverse publicity around the case in Lake County.  Irvin was found guilty and sentenced him to death. 

After LeRoy Collins was elected governor in 1954, questions were raised to him about Irvin's case, because he was considered moderate. He reviewed it and in 1955 commuted Irvin's sentence to life in prison, stating that neither trial proved conclusively that Irvin was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Walter Irvin was paroled in 1968; he died in February 1969 in Lake County. Greenlee was paroled from prison in 1962. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee with his wife and their daughter Carole, born in 1950. (His wife was pregnant when he was arrested.) They had a son, Thomas, in 1965. Charles Greenlee died on April 18, 2012. 

In 2016, the Lake County Commission followed Groveland Mayor Tim Loucks in presenting the surviving families of the Groveland Four with a posthumous apology. Both Loucks and members of the Lake County Commission then began lobbying state lawmakers to do the same.  In 2017, the Florida House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution apologizing to the families of the Groveland Four, some of whose members were in attendance, and exonerating the men. The Florida State Senate passed an identical resolution sponsored on April 27, 2017. The resolutions also called on Governor Rick Scott to expedite the process for granting posthumous pardons.  On January 11, 2019, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency agreed unanimously to pardon the Groveland Four.



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