In 1949, Norma Padgett, a white 17-year-old, falsely accused four young black men in Groveland, Florida of kidnapping and raping her. Nearly 70 years later, the state of Florida is apologizing to the families of the “Groveland Four,” two of whom were murdered and two of whom were wrongly sentenced to death.

After the false accusations, enraged white residents of Lake County went on a violent rampage, shooting at and burning the homes of black residents. The Governor sought help from the National Guard to quell the violence. One of the falsely accused young men, Ernest Thomas, escaped from the county jail and was shot dead by an angry mob of 1,000 men led by Lake County sheriff Willis V. McCall. Thomas was shot 400 times. The three others who had been falsely accused were beaten into giving false confessions, then quickly tried and convicted by an all-white jury. The youngest, Charles Greenlee, who was only 16 years old, was sentenced to life in prison. Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, both Army veterans, were sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed their convictions and ordered a new trial.

During their transport from the county prison for court proceedings, Sheriff McCall claimed the pair tried to escape and shot both men, killing Shepherd. Irvin played dead, survived the shooting, and was again tried and sentenced to death. Irvin received a last-minute reprieve from execution and his sentence was commuted by the Governor. Greenlee and Irvin were both granted parole in the 1960s. Irvin died in 1970 and Greenlee in 2012.

The Groveland Four, as the men came to be known, were finally given a formal apology from the Florida House of Representatives on April 19, 2017, nearly 70 years after they were first accused. Rep. Bobby DuBose (D-Fort Lauderdale), sponsored the bill and said, “This resolution, while seemingly minute, symbolizes the great state of Florida looking those families in the eyes — families, with children, who grew up not knowing their fathers but only knew their records. This resolution is us simply saying, ‘We’re sorry’ — understanding we will never know or make up for the pain we have caused.”

The resolution, which says the Groveland Four, “were the victims of gross injustices and that their abhorrent treatment by the criminal justice system is a shameful chapter in this state’s history,” and calls on Gov. Rick Scott to expedite posthumous pardons, passed the House unanimously. The Senate is expected to vote soon on its version of the bill. [UPDATE: On April 27, 2017, the Florida Senate approved an identical resolution.]


K. Mettler, “We’re tru­ly sor­ry’: Fla. apol­o­gizes for racial injus­tice of 1949 Groveland Four’ rape case,” The Washington Post, April 19, 2017; M. E. Klas, Almost 70 years lat­er, Florida pre­pares apol­o­gy to fam­i­lies of the Groveland Four,” Miami Herald, April 18, 2017; G. Rohrer, House apol­o­gizes to Groveland Four’ for false rape charges,” Orlando Sentinel, April 18, 2017. Image from the Innocence Project. [updat­ed sources: G. Rohrer, “ Groveland Four’ get apol­o­gy from Senate; Will par­dons be next?,” Orlando Sentinel, April 27, 2017; B. Woodall, Florida Senate seeks par­don for wrong­ly accused Groveland Four’,” Reuters, April 27, 2017. See Innocence and Race.