State Politics

Is it finally time for Florida to pardon the Groveland Four?

Florida apologizes to the Groveland Four

Florida legislators are advancing a bill that extends a formal apology and seeks a full pardon to the four men falsely accused of rape in 1949.
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Florida legislators are advancing a bill that extends a formal apology and seeks a full pardon to the four men falsely accused of rape in 1949.

It’s been 70 years since four young black men entered one of the worst chapters in Florida’s history, wrongly accused of raping a white woman and then tortured, killed or wrongly imprisoned at the hands of racist mobs and a racist sheriff.

But there’s a chance their names will be cleared Friday.

Florida’s new governor and Cabinet will meet Friday morning to discuss their case, although families of the Groveland Four and their supporters aren’t expecting a pardon just yet.

And they’re mostly OK with that.

“I appreciate the governor even just discussing it,” said Wade Greenlee, the younger brother of Charles Greenlee, who was just 16 when he was arrested in 1949, beaten in a jail cell and sentenced to life in prison. “I would love to meet him if I could, just to say, ‘Thank you.’ ”

Friday’s meeting of the Clemency Board is listed as just a “discussion” about the Groveland Four.

(The Clemency Board and the Cabinet are the same, consisting of the governor, the attorney general, the chief financial officer and the agriculture commissioner.)

There is no public comment scheduled, even though Clemency Board meetings usually allow applicants to plead their cases.

That’s left supporters believing that a second clemency meeting will finally clear their names.

“I think people should be optimistic, not upset,” said Gary Corsair, the author of the 2002 book “The Groveland Four: The Sad Saga of a Legal Lynching.” “It’s been 60 years. What’s another three or four months?”

Their hopes for a pardon were high nearly two years ago, when the Florida Legislature unanimously passed a bill asking former Gov. Rick Scott to pardon the four men. None of the four — Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas — are still living.

But Scott refused, for reasons he never said. His successor, Gov. Ron DeSantis, who took office on Tuesday, vowed last month to make it a “priority,” saying that “justice was miscarried.”

Other members of the new Cabinet have also expressed interest in pardons.

But behind the scenes, the family of the accuser in the case is saying the Groveland men shouldn’t be pardoned.

Two sons of Norma Padgett, who set the events in motion when she accused the men of raping her, told the Orlando Sentinel that their mom was telling the truth about the incident.

“My mom don’t lie,” Curtis Upshaw told the Sentinel. “She’s a good Christian lady.”

But a mountain of evidence over the decades has revealed the case was rotten from the start.

Greenlee, for example, was 20 miles away when the alleged rape happened. Irvin, a World War II veteran who had been discharged just days before the event, had his case overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, only to be sentenced a second time with manufactured evidence.

His sister, Henrietta Irvin, who now lives in Miami, said her brother “wasn’t this type of person.” Their father, she added, never got over it.

She’s cautiously optimistic that her brother’s name will be cleared — eventually.

“It looks good, but you never can tell until it happens,” she said. “I’ve been waiting a long time for something to happen.”

Either way, Wade Greenlee, who is traveling to Tallahassee from Jacksonville for the hearing, is excited.

“We’re this close,” he said.

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