Black men in 'Groveland Four' case may get rape convictions, indictments dismissed

The motion to dismiss comes more than 70 years after the alleged incident.

October 26, 2021, 5:35 PM

More than 70 years after four Black men were accused of raping a white woman in 1949, Florida State Attorney Bill Gladson has filed a motion to posthumously clear the "Groveland Four" of their criminal records.

"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. "The evidence strongly suggests that a sheriff, a judge, and prosecutor all but guaranteed guilty verdicts in this case."

Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, all young Black men, were accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman in the central Florida town of Groveland. Following the accusation, an angry mob shot and killed Thomas before he could be arrested. Records show that the indictment against him was never dismissed by the court, according to Gladson's motion.

Greenlee, Shepherd and Irvin were all put to trial and convicted.

Attorney Bill Gladson presents his opening statements in court in Ocala, Fla., Jan. 17, 2018.
Ocala Star-Banner via USA Today Network, FILE

Greenlee, who was 16 years old at the time, received a recommendation of mercy from the jury and received a life sentence. He did not appeal the verdict.

Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to death and successfully made an appeal. In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated their convictions and ordered a new trial for each. Following the new indictment, Florida Sheriff Willis McCall shot and killed Shepherd and attacked and injured Irvin. Shepherd's indictment, like Thomas', was never dismissed. Irvin was retried, convicted and again sentenced to death, but later had his sentence commuted to life in prison.

Gladson filed the motion to dismiss the indictments of Thomas and Shepherd, and set aside and vacate the judgments and sentences of Greenlee and Irvin.

Several pieces of troubling information highlighted the problematic nature of their charges and convictions. Gladson argues that the state never had Irvin's pants tested for the presence of semen, even though they could have, and instead left the jury with the impression that Irvin's pants contained evidence of the rape.

PHOTO: Relatives of the Groveland Four gather at the just-unveiled monument in front of the Old Lake County courthouse in Tavares, Fla. Feb. 21, 2020.
Relatives of the Groveland Four gather at the just-unveiled monument in front of the Old Lake County courthouse in Tavares, Fla. Feb. 21, 2020. From left, Vivian Shepherd, niece of Sam Shepherd; Gerald Threat, nephew of Walter Irvin; Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee.
Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images, FILE

The qualification of the prosecution's star witnesses, who made shoe and tire casts from the scene, has also been called into question. One of the defense's expert witnesses stated in the second trial that one of the casts was manufactured to falsely link Irvin to the scene.

Gladson also noted an email from the grandson of the state attorney who prosecuted the Groveland Four case that says state attorney Jesse Hunter and trial judge Truman Futch knew at the time of the second trial that there was no rape.

Now, if the court grants the Gladson's motion, the legal presumption of innocence for these four men would be restored.

"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," Carol Greenlee said in a statement. "I hope this motion will result in that full justice for my father Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis granted posthumous pardons to the men in 2019.

Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, far left, and an unidentified man stand next to Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee, from left, in Florida.
State Library and Archives of Florida via AP

This isn't the first time Black men may have been falsely or unfairly convicted for similar incidents.

In 1972, Federal District Judge Charles R. Scott vacated the convictions of Robert Shuler and Jerry Chatman, two Black men who were convicted of raping a white woman in Florida. The retrial was ordered when the woman hinted the assault may never have been committed.

In the 1980s, the Exonerated Five, previously known as the Central Park Five, were a group of Black and Hispanic teenagers who were convicted and later exonerated in connection with the rape and brutal assault on a white female jogger in New York.