Day 6

Exoneration of Black men known as the Groveland Four 'hard to put into words,' says author

Gilbert King's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, unearthed previously unknown details about the case of four Black men who were wrongfully accused and convicted of raping a white woman in 1949.

Gilbert King's Pulitzer Prize-winning book unearthed previously unknown details about the case

Walter Lee Irvin, centre, speaks with his attorneys, including Thurgood Marshall, left, during his trial for rape. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Gilbert King didn't think that he would ever see the Groveland Four exonerated for a crime they didn't commit.

The author won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, which detailed the case of four Black men wrongfully accused of raping a white woman in Groveland, Fla., in 1949. 

"To see the families' faces and to know that this was something that they've been dreaming about for decades, it's hard to put into words," he told Day 6 host Peter Armstrong.

The four men — Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin — were exonerated by a Florida judge on Monday in the same courthouse they were convicted more than a half century earlier. The men had previously been pardoned in 2019.

Two of the men, Thomas and Shepherd, were indicted but killed by law enforcement before trial, and the convictions and sentences of Greenlee and Irvin were set aside. 

From left, Vivian Shepherd, niece of Sam Shepherd; Gerald Threat, nephew of Walter Irvin; and Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee, gather at the just-unveiled monument for the Groveland Four in front of the Old Lake County courthouse in Tavares, Fla. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/The Associated Press)

"We are blessed. I hope that this is a start because lot of people didn't get this opportunity. A lot of families didn't get this opportunity. Maybe they will," Aaron Newson, Thomas's nephew, told The Associated Press

"This country needs to come together."

I have not witnessed a more complete breakdown of the criminal justice system, nor do I ever expect I will again.- Bill Gladson

King's book revealed that the FBI concealed information about the case for decades.

"We followed the evidence to see where it led us, and it led us to this moment," said Bill Gladson, the local state attorney who moved to have the men exonerated last month.

Perjury and manufactured evidence

Norma Padgett, a young married woman, accused the four men of raping her and assaulting her husband after their car broke down in Lake County, Fla.

Following the accusations, Thomas was hunted down and killed by a posse of 1,000 men, led by Sheriff Willis McCall. It's believed that Thomas was shot more than 400 times. Shepherd, Greenlee and Irvin were arrested. 

According to King, the Ku Klux Klan descended upon the city and began burning the homes of Black families.

"These accusations in Jim Crow Florida in the 1940s were extremely explosive, and you can see [with] all these white supremacists who had descended onto the area, there was going to be a lynching," he said.

Author Gilbert King won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction writing for his book on the case of the Groveland Four, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. (Submitted by Gilbert King)

The three living men were convicted by a Florida court and sentenced to death, except for Greenlee, who was 16 at the time and sentenced to life in prison.

"It was one of the most corrupt and crooked trials that I think even the state attorney had ever seen before. Prosecutorial misconduct, perjury, manufacturing of evidence," said King. "But you know, it didn't matter — it's the Jim Crow South."

On appeal, with civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall representing the men, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the verdict arguing that no evidence had been presented. McCall would later shoot two of the men, claiming they attempted to escape, killing Shepherd and critically wounding Irvin.

FBI documents uncovered

Devil in the Grove details information known by FBI about the case at the time. 

"The FBI did a very big criminal civil rights investigation, and the results of that investigation were sealed for more than 60 years," said King. "So even Thurgood Marshall and his lawyers didn't ever learn what the FBI had learned."

Unredacted FBI documents, retrieved through a freedom of information request, indicated that officials involved in the case admitted to beating the men and that evidence had been manufactured, says King. Gladson said that James Yates, a deputy who served as a primary witness, likely fabricated evidence, including shoe casts, according to The Associated Press.

"One of the greatest tragedies of the story is that government officials — elected officials — chose to hide this from the public, so the real truth was never known," King told Armstrong.

Carol Greenlee Crawley, second from left, daughter of Charles Greenlee, reacts after Circuit Court Judge Heidi Davis dismissed all charges against the Groveland Four, during a proceeding at the Lake County Courthouse on Nov. 22, 2021. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)

Greenlaw and Irvin were reconvicted by an all-white jury in 1951. Irvin narrowly escaped execution in 1954, and then-Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence to life with parole. Greenlaw, who was also sentenced to life, was paroled in 1962, and died in 2012.

Irvin was paroled in 1968 and died the following year.

"The evidence strongly suggests that the sheriff, the judge, and the prosecutor all but ensured guilty verdicts in this case," Gladson wrote in his motion to exonerate the men.

"I have not witnessed a more complete breakdown of the criminal justice system, nor do I ever expect I will again."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Gilbert King produced by Laurie Allan.

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