Florida Politics

Senate tries to bring ‘peace’ with Groveland Four apology

Hoping to provide closure in a decades-old case of racial injustice, the Senate formally apologized Thursday for the prosecution and persecution of four black men accused of raping a white woman in 1949.

The legislation approved Thursday (HCR 631) also asks Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet to pardon the “Groveland Four” — Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas.

All of the men are dead. But descendants have traveled to Tallahassee to advocate for the bill, saying it would clear the men’s names and end any lingering shame of the accusations, which are now widely discredited.

The House had already adopted the resolution, meaning the vote by the Senate formalized the Legislature’s apology to the four men, two of whom were killed before their cases worked all the way through the justice system.

“We cannot go back to this terrible event and undo it,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who sponsored the measure in the Senate. “But we can acknowledge our wrongs. And we can bring peace and healing and closure to the families who have suffered for so long.”

The incident began in 1949, when a 17-year-old woman and her husband claimed that the four men raped her near Groveland in Lake County. Three of the men were tortured until two confessed to the crime.

Thomas, who initially escaped, was killed in Madison County after a manhunt. The other three men were convicted, with Greenlee receiving a life sentence and Irvin and Shepherd condemned to death.

An appeal of the Irvin and Shepherd convictions, with the men represented by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, prompted the high court to overturn the verdict in 1951. Irvin and Shepherd were shot several months later, purportedly in self-defense, by Sheriff Willis McCall and a deputy. Shepherd was killed.

After Irvin was convicted and sentenced to death again, Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence. Irvin was paroled in 1968 and died two years later. Greenlee, who was paroled in 1962, died in 2012.

The case gained increasing attention after the publication in 2012 of Gilbert King’s book “Devil in the Grove,” which won the Pulitzer Prize.

The Groveland resolution was approved by the Senate one day after members also adopted an apology for the mistreatment of youths held at the now-shuttered Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, similar to another measure passed by the House.

Farmer said the two proposals showed a determination by lawmakers to atone for the state’s past sins.

“Combined, I think these bills and our recognition of these dark times show that we will always be vigilant against racism, against hatred,” he said.

In Tallahassee last week to advocate for the apology, Carol Greenlee — the daughter of Charles — said it meant something more to the families of the victims.

“My nephew can wear his name Greenlee proudly now,” she said, “because the truth has come out.”

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