The Groveland Four, the four black men wrongly accused of rape in 1949 and murdered, tortured or wrongly imprisoned, is one of the ugliest episodes of racism in Florida’s history.
The case is so bad that books have been written about it, and last year Florida’s Legislature voted to ask the state’s Clemency Board — led by Gov. Rick Scott — to posthumously pardon them.
Yet more than a year has gone by without the board taking up the Legislature’s request, and the agenda for Scott’s final Clemency Board meeting, which has been postponed, doesn’t include the Groveland Four.
After this week’s Cabinet meeting, none of the four members of the Clemency Board could say why they haven’t pardoned the Groveland Four.
While the process to apply and get someone pardoned can take years, each member of the board has a simple solution: the rules allow them to immediately bring a candidate before them to be pardoned.
That, in fact, is what lawmakers asked the board to do in 2017. The resolution they unanimously passed included “urging the Governor and Cabinet to perform an expedited clemency review” for the four men.
Scott, who left before taking questions from the media on Tuesday, said through a spokesman that it was a matter of procedure.
His spokesman did not address the fact that the governor could merely invoke the rule to immediately speed up the process.
“Gov. Scott is aware of the Groveland Four case and is strongly against any form of racial injustice or discrimination,” his spokesman said in a statement. “Currently, the families of Walter Irvin and Charles Greenlee have applications pending with the Commission on Offender Review which, on behalf of the state of Florida, conducts clemency investigations per standard procedure and the Florida Constitution.
“After the commission concludes a clemency investigation, their findings are presented to the four-member Board of Executive Clemency. We continue to review all of our options.”
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam took questions from reporters but would not say why he hasn’t done so.
“The year’s not done, and our term’s not done,” Putnam said. “There may yet be an opportunity. But that’s still in flux. We’ll see.”
Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis avoided answering, saying he didn’t know the next time the Clemency Board would meet. The meeting was supposed to be on Wednesday, but it was indefinitely postponed so Scott could attend services for former President George H.W. Bush in Washington.
When told that the Groveland Four wasn’t on the agenda for the final meeting, Patronis said, “We have another agenda coming out.”
As for Attorney General Pam Bondi, she also left the Cabinet meeting without taking any questions, and her spokesman did not respond to the question.
For Scott, Bondi and Patronis, the clemency meeting, if it’s rescheduled before Jan. 8, will be their last chance to pardon the Groveland Four.
The Legislature’s resolution addressed the “grave injustices perpetrated against” Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas, and it offered a “formal and heartfelt apology to these victims of racial hatred and to their families.”
It’s a shocking episode of Florida during the Jim Crow era that was the subject of Gilbert King’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.”
King said Thursday that pardoning the men is a chance to finish what the state of Florida started.
“I don’t think there’s a political price to pay for this,” he said. “I don’t see this as a political issue. I see it more as a right vs. wrong and correcting a grave injustice.”
In 1949, a 17-year-old white woman and her estranged husband told police that she’d been abducted by four black men and raped after the couple’s car broke down outside Groveland, in Lake County.
Sheriff Willis McCall arrested the four men, even though Greenlee, 16, was being held by a store watchman 20 miles away when the alleged rape happened and said he didn’t know the other three men.
Irvin and Shepherd, who were World War II veterans, admitted they had stopped to help the couple but denied raping the woman. But both Greenlee and Shepherd confessed after being beaten in the basement of the county jail.
The fourth man, Thomas, escaped, but was “hunted” over the next 30 hours by a posse of 1,000 men with bloodhounds. They shot and killed Thomas while he slept under a tree in Madison County.
All-white juries convicted the three men and sentenced Irvin and Shepherd to death. Greenlee was given a life sentence.
But the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a retrial in 1951. Seven months later, while McCall was transporting Shepherd and Irvin to a court hearing, the sheriff pulled over and shot the two men on the side of the road.
Shepherd died, but Irvin pretended to be dead. McCall claimed they had tried to escape, but Irvin said McCall shot them in cold blood while they were handcuffed to each other and lying on the ground. The FBI later found a bullet under a blood spot where Irvin said he’d been shot.
Despite evidence the FBI said was manufactured, Irvin was convicted again and given another death sentence. In 1955, Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted the sentence to life in prison, and he was paroled in 1968.
Irvin was found dead in his car a year later, while visiting Lake County during a funeral. Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012.
The Legislature’s resolution said the four men were “victims of gross injustices and that their abhorrent treatment by the criminal justice system is a shameful chapter in this state’s history.”
They then sent copies of the resolution to Scott, Putnam, Bondi and Patronis — where they await further action.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald