Walter Lee Irvin speaks with his attorneys, including chief counsel for the NAACP and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, during his trial in 1952. Irvin was accused of kidnaping and raping a young Florida housewife and sentenced to death. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
Seventy years ago in Groveland, Fla., a white teenager named Norma Padgett accused four black men of kidnapping and raping her in a car on a dark road.
Two of the men would eventually be shot dead by the segregationist sheriff of Lake County and his angry mob, and the other two wrongfully convicted of crimes on little evidence. The Groveland Four, as they became known, inspired a Pulitzer-winning book and have been considered for decades one of Florida’s most grave injustices and a case study on failed rule of law in the Jim Crow south.
And on Friday, the state’s clemency board voted to posthumously pardon all four men — Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin.
After hearing testimony from family members of the men and Padgett herself, now in her late 80s, newly-inaugurated Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said this case was a “miscarriage of justice” and that the “only appropriate thing to do is to grant pardons.”
“I hope that this will bring peace to the their families and their communities,” DeSantis said after the formal vote, which took place after his first cabinet meeting as governor.
Within days of Padgett’s accusations, Shepherd, Greenlee and Irvin had been jailed and Thomas was dead, shot and killed by an angry mob — led by Sheriff Willis V. McCall — who had chased him 200 miles into the Panhandle. In Groveland, black-owned homes were shot up and burned, sparking chaos so intense the governor eventually sent in the National Guard.
Despite the lack of evidence, a jury quickly convicted the three still alive.
Greenlee, just 16 at the time, was sent to prison for life.
Shepherd and Irvin, friends and Army veterans, were sentenced to death, but the U.S. Supreme Court later overturned their convictions and ordered a retrial. Before that could happen, though, McCall shot them both. Shepherd died at the scene, but Irvin — who played dead — survived, and his sentence was later commuted to life in prison.

Sheriff Willis V. McCall of Lake County, Fla., is shown following the shooting of two black men, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Lee Irvin, whom he was transporting from the Florida State Prison at Raiford to Tavares, Nov. 7, 1951, for a hearing prior to their re-trial for the rape of 17-year-old Norma Padgett. (AP Photo)
Carole Greenlee was in her mother’s womb when her father was accused of raping Padgett. He had been in Lake County that day looking for a job, a way to provide for his young family.
After his conviction, his wife would bring the infant Carole for visits every Sunday, but eventually the became too difficult.
Carole didn’t see her father again until he was paroled in 1962. She was a pre-teen.
Charles Greenlee did not appeal his conviction, according to PBS, and spent 12 years in prison. He died in 2012 at age 78.
Shepherd and Irvin, however, did appeal, and although the Florida Supreme Court initially upheld their convictions, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned them.
They were shot by McCall on their return trip from prison to Lake County, where a new trial awaited them.
In his second trial, Irvin was represented by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, but was once again convicted after a speedy deliberation. They appealed again, but the U.S. Supreme Court denied the case. The governor at the time also rejected a clemency appeal and scheduled Irvin’s execution.
But an emergency stay saved his life, and a newly elected moderate governor commuted Irvin’s sentence to life in prison after commissioning a report on the case.
Irvin was released in 1968 and died two years later, of a heart attack, on a trip back to Lake County for a funeral.
In 2016, the city of Groveland and Lake County apologized to the men and their families. A year later, the state of Florida apologized as well.