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Florida pardons 4 black men accused of 1949 rape

| Friday, Jan. 11, 2019, 12:03 p.m.
Michael Coghlan

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and a Cabinet granted posthumous pardons Friday to four African-American men accused of raping a white woman nearly 70 years ago in a case now seen as a racial injustice.

The unanimous vote came minutes after alleged victim pleaded with DeSantis and the Cabinet members, meeting as the clemency board, not to grant the pardons, saying she still relives the horror of the rape she said happened in 1949.

But DeSantis said the case against the men known as the Groveland Four was clearly mishandled.

“The way this was carried out was a miscarriage of justice,” DeSantis said.

The ordeal began in Lake County in 1949, when the then-17-year-old said she had been raped. Three of the men were arrested and severely beaten; a fourth, Ernest Thomas, fled.

A posse of about 1,000 men was formed to hunt down Thomas. He was shot 400 times when they found him sleeping under a tree. White residents also formed a mob and went to a black neighborhood, burning houses and firing guns into homes in a disturbance that took days to quell.

Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd were convicted despite dubious evidence. Other evidence that could have exonerated them — such as a doctor’s conclusion that the teen probably wasn’t raped — was withheld at their trial. Greenlee was sentenced to life, and Irvin and Shepherd to death.

Thurgood Marshall, later the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, took up Irvin and Shepherd’s appeals for the NAACP, and in 1951 the U.S. Supreme Court ordered new trials.

Just before those trials began, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot Irvin and Shepherd, claiming the handcuffed men tried to escape as he transferred him from prison to a jail. Shepherd died. Irvin was shot in the neck and survived despite an ambulance refusing to transport him because he was black. He was again convicted, even though a former FBI agent testified that prosecutors manufactured evidence against him.

Charges were never brought against any white law enforcement officers or prosecutors who handled the cases.

Irvin was paroled in 1968 and found dead in his car while returning to Lake County for a funeral a year later.

Greenlee was paroled in 1960 and died in 2012.

In 2017, the state House and Senate voted unanimously to formally apologize to the men’s families and asked then-Gov. Rick Scott to pardon them. He took no action. DeSantis replaced Scott as governor on Tuesday.

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