Among the pockets of the Deep South gripped by racist Jim Crow laws in the 1940s and 1950s, Lake County, Fla., ranked among the worst.
For nearly three decades, Sheriff Willis McCall swaggered through Lake County like a sovereign ruler surveying his turf, wielding law and order not as an instrument of justice so much as a cudgel to keep the area’s black residents in their place.
In 1949, when a young white woman claimed she was raped by a group of young black men, McCall personally oversaw the arrests, torture, trials and convictions of four innocent black men — a injustice that infamously became known as the “Groveland Four” case.
Today, thanks to a Pulitzer Prize-winning book and increased attention to the case, the “Groveland Four” convictions are considered among the ugliest chapters in American legal history. But despite a push from the families of the four men — Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas — as well as the Florida Legislature, outgoing Gov. Rick Scott has failed to issue them a pardon.
The failure to act on the nearly 70-year-old injustice adds an unsettling coda on Scott’s years in office, a time when Florida struggled through a number of racially charged controversies, including the recent governor’s race.
The “Groveland Four” case started on a summer evening in July 1949, when Willie Padgett and his 17-year-old wife, Norma, broke down in their car on a rural road coming back from a dance. Shepherd and Irvin, friends and former U.S. Army buddies, reportedly stopped to help. Later, the couple would tell Lake County authorities that the two men, along, with Greenlee and Thomas, attacked Willie and then raped Norma.
Within hours of the allegation, Shepherd, Irvin and Greenlee were in McCall’s custody, where they were beaten and tortured, according to Gilbert King’s “Devil in the Grove.” Thomas fled, only to be tracked and fatally shot by law enforcement.
The remaining suspects had alibis for the time of the alleged rape, there was no physical evidence tying them to the crime, and it was questionable whether an assault even occurred. But all were convicted by a local jury in 1949. Greenlee was given life in prison. Shepherd and Irvin were sent to death row.
Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out Shepherd’s and Irvin’s convictions. A retrial was ordered. In November 1951, McCall personally transported the men back to Lake County. Along the way, the car stopped, bullets were fired, and both Shepherd and Irvin were shot.
McCall would later claim the two had tried to flee when the sheriff pulled over to check a tire.
Shepherd was killed but Irvin survived and later testified McCall gunned them down in cold blood.
“I got rid of them,” McCall said into his police radio after the shooting, Irvin later said, according to PBS. A coroner’s inquest later cleared the sheriff in the shooting.
After recovering, Irvin was again put on trial for the assault on Norma Padgett. Although he was represented by Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice, Irvin was again convicted and sentenced to die.
Irvin was saved from execution by the Florida governor in 1954. He was released from prison in 1968, and died of a heart attack two years later. Greenlee was released in 1962 and died in 2012. But Greenlee and Irvin were never officially pardoned.
Thanks to the national outrage reignited by King’s book and other coverage of the injustice, the Florida Legislature passed a resolution in 2017 apologizing for the “grave injustices perpetrated against Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas.” The same legislation urged Scott and his administration “to perform an expedited clemency review.”
That review, however, has remained stalled.