On Friday, January 11, two years after the Groveland City Council issued a proclamation and resolution calling upon the State of Florida to pardon the men who became known as the Groveland Four, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Executive Clemency Board unanimously approved the men’s pardons.
Chairman Leslie Campione of the Lake County Board of County Commissioners attended the clemency board meeting as Gov. DeSantis and Florida’s cabinet met to pardon the Groveland Four. “Our focus today was on the failure of the system at the time to ensure fairness and due process as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. We talked about the brutality inflicted on the accused individuals and the importance of righting this wrong as much as we can, as the current elected officials on behalf of the Lake County community at large, which is a living, caring community,” Chairman Campione said.
A statement issued by the City of Groveland declared that while the tragic events of 1949, which gave rise to this case, did not take place in the City of Groveland, the City served as the telephone center for reporters documenting the events. As such, the City has been regrettably linked to this terrible event ever since. Groveland was founded on diversity and inclusiveness and remains committed to that vision. We stand with others in condemning all acts of hate and bias.
The Groveland Four were four young black men, Earnest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd, and Walter Irvin, who in 1949 were accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman whose car broke down near Groveland.
Thomas fled, was hunted down and killed by a posse several days later. Greenlee, Shepherd and Irvin were arrested and beaten in the basement of the jail to coerce confessions. Irvin did not confess. Shepherd’s family home was burned to the ground by an angry mob. The three were convicted at trial by an all-white jury. Greenlee was sentenced to life because he was only 16 at the time of the crime; Irvin and Shepherd, both WWII veterans, were sentenced to death.
In 1951, the United States Supreme Court ordered a retrial after hearing appeals by the latter two men, led by Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. It ruled they had not received a fair trial because of excessive adverse publicity and because blacks had been excluded from the jury.
In November 1951, Sheriff Willis McCall shot both Shepherd and Irvin while they were in his custody, saying they had tried to escape while he was transporting them from Raiford State Prison back to the county seat of Tavares, for the new trial. Shepherd died on the spot; Irvin survived his wounds and later told FBI investigators that the sheriff had shot them in cold blood and that his deputy had also shot him in an attempt to finish him off.
At the second trial, Irvin was again convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. In 1955, his sentence was commuted to life. In 1968 Irvin was paroled. He died in February 1969 in Lake County. Greenlee was released from prison in 1962 and died at age 78 in 2012.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Devil in the Grove, is the story of the Groveland Four.