Florida court clears ‘Groveland Four’ of 1949 rape

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A Florida judge exonerated four Black men who were falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949.

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Administrative Judge Heidi Davis dismissed the indictments of Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd, who were killed, and set aside the convictions and sentences of Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin, the Associated Press reported. The men, known as the “Groveland Four”, were aged 16 to 26 in 1949 when they were accused of raping a white woman in Groveland, Lake County.

The men’s families had fought for the exoneration and celebrated the judge’s decision. “This is a glory hallelujah day,” said Beverly Robinson, Samuel Shepherd’s cousin, WFTV reported.

Ernest Thomas was killed shortly after the rape accusation by a posse that shot him more than 400 times. The sheriff in Groveland at the time, Willis McCall, shot and killed Shepherd and injured Irvin in 1951 while driving them to a second trial after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their first conviction, citing a lack of evidence.

According to the grandson of the now-deceased prosecutor of two of the four defendants, both the prosecutor and a judge in the case knew the men were innocent, the Associated Press reported.

In 2017, the Florida legislature apologized to the men and recommended their exoneration. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis pardoned them in 2019.