U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has joined the growing chorus of calling for the pardon of the Groveland Four.
The Groveland Four are part of a dark time in Florida’s history. In 1949, Willie and Norma Padgett–a white couple–had their car break down on the side of the road in Groveland. Two former soldiers–Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepard–stopped to help the couple. No one is certain what happened next but Norma Padgett claimed that four black men raped her.
Rubio suggested on the Senate floor that she could have made the story up to cover up abuse from her husband.
William McCall, the sheriff of Lake County at the time, sprang into action, arresting Irvin and Shepard. After beating them for days until he was able to get a confession after the men initially denied any wrongdoing.
Charles Greenlee, a 16 year old boy, was also arrested for the crime, despite the fact that a store keeper claimed he was 20 miles away. Willie Padgett told McCall that Greenlee was not one of the rapists.
Next, an armed posse led by McCall hunted down a fourth suspect–Ernest Thomas–in Madison County. The posse shot and killed Thomas when they found him sleeping under a tree.
The legal aftermath was damaging to Florida, Rubio said.
“The judge over that case denied their attorney access to exculpatory evidence,” Rubio said on the Senate floor. “The judge in that case barred testimony about how they had been beaten until they confessed and an all-white jury convicted them, sentenced Irvin and Shepherd to death and sentenced 16-year-old Greenlee to life in prison.”
Future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall took up the case of the three convicted men and took it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where he won them a new trial. McCall was transporting Irvin and Shepard to the new trial when he pulled his car over, handcuffed the men and shot them, claiming they were making an escape attempt.
Shepard was killed while Irvin survived but was again convicted and sentenced to death. He was eventually paroled by Gov. Claude Kirk. Irvin was found dead in his car a year later when he returned to Lake County for a funeral. Greenlee was paroled in 1960. After moving away from Florida, he died in 2012.
The calls for pardons have grown louder over the years. Rubio joined that chorus this week.
“While there is nothing we can do to give Mr. Thomas or Mr. Shepherd back their lives, there’s nothing we can do to give Mr. Irvin or Mr. Greenlee back the years they spent in jail for a crime they did not commit – we can give these men back their good name. What we can do now, as a state in Florida, is seek the forgiveness of their families and of them for the grave injustice that was committed against them. And this is what I come here to the Senate today to urge the new Florida cabinet to do as soon as possible after they take office next month. Because after 70 years, it is time for Florida to do the right thing for the Groveland Four,” he said.
In 2016, both the city of Groveland and Lake County offered full apologies to the surviving family members of the Groveland Four. The Legislature has acted as well, voting unanimously for a full pardon in 2017 but Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet never acted on that request.
Incoming Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is renewing that call for a pardon. Florida Daily reached out to the transition team of incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis for comment, but did not hear back.
There were some developments late on Wednesday as Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis invoked Executive Clemency Rule 17 to expedite the process on the Groveland Four’s clemency case.
That move won Fried’s applause and she weighed in on the matter late on Wednesday afternoon.
“I appreciate Chief Financial Officer Patronis’ timely action on this important issue that has been ignored for far too long. The time for justice has come—the Groveland Four and the families deserve for this to be considered and for the past injustices to be recognized and condemned,” she said.
Reach Mike Synan at Mike.Synan@floridadaily.com.