TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the independently elected Cabinet granted a pardon to four African-American men accused of raping a white woman almost 70 years ago.
The posthumous pardons were granted Friday for the men known as the Groveland Four.
The Lake County men were accused of the 1949 rape under dubious circumstances. One was hunted down by a posse of about 1,000 men and shot more than 400 times.
Three others were convicted. After the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial in 1951, a sheriff shot two of them, claiming the handcuffed men were trying to escape. One died.
The two surviving men were eventually paroled.
Lake County Board of Commissioners Chairman Leslie Campione attended the clemency board meeting on Friday.
“Our focus today was on the failure of the system at the time to ensure fairness and due process as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution," Campione said. "We talked about the brutality inflicted on the accused individuals and the importance of righting this wrong as much as we can, as the current elected officials on behalf of the Lake County community at large, which is a living, caring community."
[News 6 archives: Investigation into former Lake County sheriff's connection to 1951 bombing]
In 2017, the House and Senate voted unanimously to formally apologize to the men's families and asked then-Gov. Scott to pardon them. The Groveland City Council also issued a proclamation and resolution calling upon the State of Florida to pardon the men.
Scott took no action.
DeSantis replaced Scott as governor on Tuesday.
DeSantis issued the following statement Friday after the decision was made:
“For seventy years, these four men have had their history wrongly written for crimes they did not commit. As I have said before, while that is a long time to wait, it is never too late to do the right thing. I believe the rule of law is society’s sacred bond. When it is trampled, we all suffer. For the Groveland Four, the truth was buried. The Perpetrators celebrated. But justice has cried out from that day until this. I would like to thank CFO Patronis, Attorney General Moody and Agriculture Commissioner Fried for their support.”
The governor and the Cabinet members, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Attorney General Ashley Moody and CFO Jimmy Patronis, were applauded for taking this step.
“It is my hope that this pardon brings some solace to the families of these four men, and helps heal the wounds that have lingered for far too long," Florida Senate Democratic leader Audrey Gibson said.
Florida Democratic Party chair Terrie Rizzo said the action was long overdue. Glenton Gilzean Jr. president of the advocacy organization The Central Florida Urban League, echoed the sentiment.
"To the families of Earnest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, after 70 years, the reputations of your loved ones have been restored. May they finally rest in peace,” he said.
Fried said she was proud of her colleagues' work to make this day a reality.
"Although the action taken today can never fully revise this dark chapter of Florida’s past, it’s my hope that the families of Charles Greenlee, Earnest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin can accept this pardon as a sincere attempt to set the record of history straight," Fried said. "I look forward to working with the Clemency Board and the FDLE to ensure a full proclamation of exoneration is obtained to clear the names of each of the Groveland Four.”