More than a half-century after a violent, dramatic criminal case in Central Florida earned national attention, the State Senate passed a resolution Thursday apologizing to the families of four black men who were “victims of racial hatred” and “gross injustices” during the era of state-sanctioned segregation in the American South.
The so-called Groveland Four — Charles Greenlee, Ernest Thomas, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd — were accused of raping a white woman in 1949 near the city of Groveland in Lake County, Fla. One was killed within days. Three were beaten in custody and convicted. Of those, one was shot dead on his way to a retrial.
They are all dead now. The resolution, which earlier passed the Florida House, extended a “heartfelt apology” for their mistreatment and wrongful convictions, and urged Gov. Rick Scott to grant them full pardons.
“We’re very hopeful that the governor and his cabinet will appreciate the message that’s being sent,” said Gary Farmer, a Democrat in the Senate who sponsored the bill along with Bobby DuBose, a Democrat in the House. “It’s bipartisan, and there’s really no question about these men’s innocence.”
By the side of the road, 1949
The resolution relays the reported facts of the case in excruciating detail:
WHEREAS, on July 16, 1949, a 17-year-old white woman and her estranged husband reported to police that she had been abducted at approximately 2:30 a.m., driven approximately 25 minutes to a dead-end road, and raped by four black men …
By the end of the night, law enforcement had arrested three young men — Mr. Irvin, Mr. Greenlee and Mr. Shepherd — who would be severely beaten by the authorities.
Mr. Thomas, meanwhile, “understanding the racial realities of the time and the danger he was in,” had fled the county, the resolution said. A posse of about 1,000 men tracked him down days later in nearby swamps, where he died “in a hail of gunfire.”
N.A.A.C.P. lawyers, including Franklin Williams and Thurgood Marshall, took an active role in the men’s defense.
It was clear to them that at least two, Mr. Greenlee and Mr. Thomas, were never at the scene of the alleged crime; that the beatings had led to forced confessions; and that important evidence, including a medical examination of the woman, was never presented in court.
An all-white jury sentenced Mr. Irvin and Mr. Shepherd to death, and Mr. Greenlee to life in prison.
Mr. Williams and Mr. Marshall appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, where the convictions were unanimously overturned in 1951. But the story was far from over.
By the side of the road, 1951
One photograph, in particular, has come to represent the tragic history of the Groveland Four. It shows two black men lying in the grass, in the background and out of focus.
In the foreground stands Willis V. McCall, the sheriff of Lake County, looking disheveled in the harsh light of a camera’s flash.
The two men on the ground were Mr. Shepherd and Mr. Irvin. They were due for a retrial.
Sheriff McCall had been personally driving the men to appear in court in Tavares when he stopped the car. Shots were fired. The sheriff would claim that he had stopped to fix a flat tire, that the two men had tried to attack him, and that he had shot them in self-defense.
Mr. Irvin survived. From a hospital bed, he told investigators that after the sheriff shot him twice, another official, Deputy Sheriff James L. Yates shot him again in the neck, at point-blank range, while he lay on the ground.
He recovered and eventually was retried, only to be convicted and sentenced to death again, by another all-white jury. The sheriff who shot him was re-elected five more times.
An old case resurfaces, twice
For decades, family members of the men kept largely quiet about the case. Vivian Shepherd, Samuel Shepherd’s niece, said she couldn’t understand the sense of shame that permeated her life.
“I used to feel a certain way growing up. It’s like embarrassment,” she said.
The details of the case, she said, only began to come clear after the publication of book by a man she’d never met, Gary Corsair.
In 1999, Mr. Corsair was searching through newspaper clippings when he saw a 1949 report about the case.
He spent the next several years researching a book he self-published in 2004: “Legal Lynching: The Saga of the Groveland Four.”
Ms. Shepherd said that book helped her understand that her father and her grandparents — whose home was destroyed by angry mobs reacting to the rape allegations in 1949 — had suffered more than she ever realized. “They lost a brother, a son; they lost their house, their land and everything,” she said.
Later, another writer, Gilbert King, came across some of Mr. Marshall’s letters about the Groveland Four.
“I remember reading these letters thinking, ‘What is going on in this case?’ It sounded horrible. It just seemed so dramatic,” he said. Mr. King spent years chasing down leads. His work culminated in a 2012 book, “Devil in the Grove,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013.
That really set the legislative gears turning. Geraldine Thompson, a former state senator, said she handed out 40 copies of “Devil in the Grove” to fellow lawmakers.
Ms. Thompson led the charge to pass a formal apology, but she left the senate in 2016. She attributed the difficulty to normal procedural issues, but said rewriting history is always a difficult undertaking.
“Whenever these kinds of things happen, there’s a lot of denial and people who just refuse to believe it,” she said.
‘I’m going to be thankful’
In 1955, Mr. Irvin’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison. He was released on parole in 1968, and died a year later.
Mr. Greenlee was released on parole in 1960. He went on to live a quiet life and rarely discussed the case, said Mr. Corsair, who met him before his death in 2012.
“I asked him why he didn’t hate, why he didn’t want vindication,” he said. “He told me that would have made him just like the people who lied on him.”
Ms. Shepherd said she is happy about the legislative apology but unsure whether Gov. Scott will grant a pardon. (In an email, the governor’s office said only that it would “look at any resolution passed by the legislature.”)
“He’s just a hard one. I’m going to be thankful if he passes the bill, and I’m going to make sure I don’t upset him before we get the bill signed,” she said.
“And I’m sorry that it has taken so long.”