After nearly 70 years, all members of the Groveland Four — four young black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in Lake County — were pardoned by a unanimous vote Friday.
The Florida Cabinet met for the first time as the state Clemency Board Friday, where they heard from family members of the men who were either imprisoned, tortured or murdered by mobs and a racist sheriff. The Groveland Four matter was only supposed to be up for discussion and families were not expecting to hear a vote today. But at the very end of the meeting, Gov. Ron DeSantis called for a vote.
“I believe in the principles of the Constitution. I believe in getting a fair shake,” he said. “I don’t think there any way that you can look at this case and see justice was carried out.”
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The families of Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Earnest Thomas (or the Groveland Four) sat scattered throughout the room. Some spoke at the podium in front of the Clemency Board.
Samuel Shepherd’s cousin Beverly Robinson, turned to the accuser, Norma Padgett, and called her a liar.
“It never happened, Miss Padgett,” she said. “You and your family are liars.”
Padgett, who sat surrounded by family in the front row, was wheeled to a microphone.
“I’m the victim of that night. I tell you now, that it’s been on my mind for 70 years. I was 17 years old and it’s never left my mind,” she said, her sons standing behind her. “I’m begging y’all not to give the pardons because they did it. If you do, you’re going to be just like them.”
The Groveland Four’s story became the focus of a 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the case, “Devil in the Grove.” The author of the book, Gilbert King, testified in front of the board.
Wade Greenlee, the younger brother of Charles, traveled to Tallahassee from Jacksonville for the hearing. So did Thomas and Carol Greenlee, two of Charles’ children.
“He was clearly convicted by a person who just said he did it. The climate of those times — that’s all they need,” Thomas Greenlee said in front of the board. “He wasn’t there for birthdays. He wasn’t there to help with homework. He just was not there. You put someone into a situation where you not only affect him, but the whole family.”
Carol Greenlee mentioned that when used to ask her father about the trial, he always said he didn’t even know the other men he was brought into the courtroom with
“The evidence was in the record,” she said. “He was accused, put in jail and tortured.”
DeSantis, who spoke about the vote at a press conference before the cabinet meeting, called the entire situation a “perversion of justice.”
In 2017, the Florida Legislature unanimously passed a bill asking former Gov. Rick Scott to go ahead and pardon them.
He refused and never answered questions as to why.
“The thing is, when you’re looking at these issues of pardons, you still have to have good justice even if someone wasn’t innocent,” DeSantis said. “To me, I look at how this whole thing went and I think that when the legislature passed the resolution in 2017, they were right — this was a miscarriage of justice.”
Agriculture Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried, told the News Service of Florida Tuesday that she wanted more than just a discussion, and said Friday she was pleased the clemency board came to a vote. Fried is now calling for a proclamation to work with FDLE to exonerate all four men.
“An exoneration makes a statement that we actually recognize what had happened and make sure that their names are cleared,” said Fried, the first Democrat on the Cabinet since former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink left office eight years ago.