State Watch

Four Black men exonerated in 1949 rape case in Florida

A Florida judge has exonerated four Black men wrongly accused of raping a woman more than 70 years ago, NBC reports.

The men, referred to as the “Groveland four,” were cleared of all charges by a circuit court judge in Lake County on Monday.

Prosecutor Bill Gladson filed a motion in October to dismiss the indictments and said the case was based on fabricated evidence. He called the accusations and subsequent arrests a criminal conspiracy between the sheriff and his deputies.

Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin were all accused of raping a white woman in 1949 and sentenced to death. They were aged between 16 to 26 when accused.

To overturn the case, a pair of pants that were still in Lake County custody was sent for further forensic testing. Once tested, they found no evidence of a sexual assault, according to The Associated Press.

Further evidence was provided to Gladson by the grandson of the original prosecutor of two of the accused, Jesse Hunter, who said that both his grandfather and the judge knew that no rape had taken place.

Gladson also said that James Yates, a deputy who served as a primary witness, likely fabricated evidence, the AP report said.

The four men, who have all since died, were previously granted pardons by the Florida Clemency Board in 2019. However, a pardon does not remove the inference of guilt, making Monday’s exoneration an important step. 

The claims were made against the men by Norma Padgett, who is now in her 80s. Shortly after the accusation went public, Thomas was killed by a mob that reportedly shot him more than 400 times. 

Padgett said at the time that she and her husband were robbed by the group of Black men after their car stalled in Groveland. She claimed she was kidnapped and raped by the men.

The incident set off violence against Black residents of Groveland, near Orlando, that saw the National Guard deployed and NAACP lead attorney Thurgood Marshall taking up their case, NBC reports.

The families of the four men told reporters after the ruling that they hope this case will spark a reexamination of other convictions of Black men and women who were falsely accused during the Jim Crow era.


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