After a dramatic, hour-long meeting, Florida governor Ron DeSantis and the cabinet granted posthumous pardons to four young black men who were tortured, murdered or wrongly imprisoned for the rape of a white woman in 1949.
The case of the men known as the “Groveland Four” has been documented in a book and is considered a blight on Florida’s history. One of the four was killed before he could be charged and the other three were convicted on dubious evidence.
The families of the men accused of the assault told DeSantis and the Cabinet – meeting as the clemency board – that there is overwhelming evidence the men were innocent and there was no rape.
The woman who was 17 years old when she said she was raped, sat in a wheelchair and later told Governor DeSantis and the Cabinet the rape did indeed happen, saying she was dragged from a car, had a gun put to her head and was told not to scream or they would “blow your brains out”.
At one point, the two sides briefly clashed. Beverly Robinson, a niece of one of the Groveland Four, was speaking to the governor and the Cabinet when she turned to the woman and her sons.
“It never happened. You all are liars,” Robinson said.
“That’s enough out of you,” the woman said.
“I know it’s enough out of me. It’s always enough when you’re telling the truth,” Robinson replied.
The unanimous vote to pardon came almost two years after the state House and Senate voted to formally apologise to relatives of the Groveland Four and to ask then-Governor Rick Scott to pardon the men.
Scott, now a US senator, never took action. DeSantis replaced Scott on Tuesday and made the pardons a priority.
“I don’t know that there’s any way you can look at this case and think that those ideals of justice were satisfied. Indeed, they were perverted time and time again, and I think the way this was carried out was a miscarriage of justice,” DeSantis said.
The ordeal began in Lake County in 1949, when the then-17-year-old said she had been raped. Three of the men were arrested and severely beaten; a fourth, Ernest Thomas, fled.
A posse of about 1,000 men was formed to hunt down Thomas. He was shot 400 times when they found him sleeping under a tree.
White residents also formed a mob and went to a black neighbourhood, burning houses and firing guns into homes in a disturbance that took days to quell.
Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd were convicted by an all-white jury. Other evidence that could have exonerated them – such as a doctor’s conclusion that the teen probably wasn’t raped – was withheld at their trial. Greenlee was sentenced to life, and Irvin and Shepherd to death.
Thurgood Marshall, later the first African-American justice on the US Supreme Court, took up Irvin and Shepherd’s appeals for the NAACP, and in 1951 the US Supreme Court ordered new trials.
Just before those trials began, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot Irvin and Shepherd, claiming the handcuffed men tried to escape as he transferred them from prison to a jail. Shepherd died.
Irvin was shot in the neck and survived despite an ambulance refusing to transport him because he was black. He was again convicted, even though a former FBI agent testified that prosecutors manufactured evidence against him.
Charges were never brought against any white law enforcement officers or prosecutors who handled the cases.
Irvin was paroled in 1968 and found dead in his car while returning to Lake County for a funeral a year later.
Greenlee was paroled in 1960 and died in 2012.
Greenlee’s daughter, Carol Greenlee, told DeSantis and the Cabinet that there was overwhelming evidence that her father was innocent.”He was accused, put in jail and tortured for something he didn’t do,” she said.
The woman who said she was raped disputed the families’ stories.
“Y’all just don’t know what kind of horror I’ve been through for all these many years,” she said. “I don’t want them pardoned, no I do not, and you wouldn’t neither. I know (Robinson) called me a liar, but I’m not no liar.”
Afterward, state Senator Gary Farmer, who sponsored the 2017 resolution apologising to the families, said the woman’s comments were disappointing.
“She’s now here at the end of her life and she had a chance to come clean, to seek forgiveness for herself and to support the justice these four families and these four men deserve,” Farmer said.
“It’s very said that she lost this opportunity and continues to perpetuate this lie. This crime did not happen. The evidence is overwhelming.”
Members of the Greenlee family met with reporters after the vote. Carol Greenlee said while the family is grateful for the pardon, she wants her father exonerated.
“I started out with two goals in mind. One, for the world to know the truth, and that is my father is not a rapist. The second was to clear his name, so his children, his grandchildren and nieces and nephews would not continue to walk around with this stigma, with the shame,” she said.
“Those two things were accomplished. And the complete exoneration will close the gap. That’s our mission.”
Despite the pain the family went through, Greenlee’s brother, Wade, said his parents always taught their children to love and not hate.
“If I had an opportunity this morning, I would have told (the accuser) that the Greenlee family has forgiven her a long time ago. We have no hate against her because we were taught differently,” he said.