Four black men who were wrongly charged and convicted for allegedly raping a 17-year-old white girl, have been officially exonerated and cleared of the charges after 72 years.
Prosecutors said the case against the men, who all died before it was re-examined by Florida officials, “lacked due process and would not be tried today.”
The accused, Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas, came to be known as the Groveland Four.
On July 16, 1949, a 17-year-old white woman and her estranged husband had reported to the police in Lake County, Florida, that the four men had stopped to help with a broken down car when they forcefully abducted the woman from the car and raped her.
Following the accusations, Thomas was killed by a mob after he fled Lake County, while the other three were charged to court and convicted by an all-white jury.
While Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to death, Greenlee was jailed for life.
Black human rights lawyers repeatedly appealed the convictions to the Supreme Court, but their appeals were unanimously overturned, with a lower court instructed to order a retrial.
In 1951, while being transported for a pretrial hearing towards the retrial, a Lake County Sheriff, claiming self-defence, shot and killed, Shepherd while Irvin was seriously injured.
At the pretrial hearing, Irvin and Greenlee were convicted again with Greenlee sentenced to life in prison, while Irvin had his original death sentence commuted to life.
Irvin was granted parole in 1968 and died a year later; Greenlee, who was 16 when he was charged, was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012 at the age of 78.
Investigators later obtained information from Jesse Hunter, the state attorney who prosecuted the case, which suggested Hunter and the judge who presided over the 1951 retrial knew that the alleged rape never happened.
In April 2017, the state of Florida issued an official apology to the families of the Groveland Four.
In the motion filed in October, 2021, to clear all four men of the charges, Bill Gladson, state attorney for the Fifth Judicial Circuit, had written:
“Given these facts today, no fair-minded prosecutor would even consider filing these charges and no reasonable jury would convict.
“The evidence strongly suggests that the sheriff, the judge, and the prosecutor all but ensured guilty verdicts in this case.
“These officials, disguised as keepers of the peace and masquerading as ministers of justice, disregarded their oaths, and set in motion a series of events that forever destroyed these men, their families, and a community.
“I have not witnessed a more complete breakdown of the criminal justice system, nor do I ever expect I will again.”
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