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“Groveland Four” Exonerated for 1949 Rape of White Teenage Girl

A judge has exonerated the innocent Black men known as the “Groveland Four,” who were accused of raping a white woman in 1949.

The men were falsely accused 72 years ago of raping 17-year-old Norma Padgett in Groveland, Florida, on July 16th, 1949. Padgett and her husband claimed the group ambushed them when their car broke down on a country road and assaulted the teenager.

The four Black men accused were Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin, and Ernest Thomas. Sadly, Thomas was shot over 400 times by an angry white mob before he stood trial.

Despite Padgett’s story being sketchy from the start, Greenlee, who was just 16, was sentenced to life in prison, while Shepherd and Irvin received the death penalty. While being transported from the county jail for a retrial, the sheriff at the time, shot Shepherd and Irvin, claiming self-defense.

Shepherd died from his injuries, and Irvin survived by playing dead. His sentence was commuted to life in prison.

On Monday, Circuit Judge Heidi Davis officially pardoned the men following State Attorney Bill Gladson’s motion to exonerate them last month, citing new evidence that cleared their names. Gladson called the case “a complete breakdown of the criminal justice system.”

One key piece of evidence that the case relied heavily on was a stain on Irvin’s pants that was assumed to be semen. However, there was no way of testing the pants in 1949. Recent DNA tests concluded that the stain was not semen.

Family members of the men were present in the courtroom, many of whom cried and cheered after the ruling.

Aaron Newson, Thomas’ nephew, said he hopes that the exoneration allows for others to have their cases re-examined.

“A lot of families didn’t get this opportunity. Maybe they will. This country needs to come together.”

In 2019, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued full posthumous pardons to the “Groveland Four.”

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