LAKE COUNTY, Fla. – Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Florida lawmakers will renew their effort Tuesday to exonerate four men, known as the Groveland Four, who were wrongfully convicted of rape in 1949 in Lake County.
Last year, the Florida Clemency Board posthumously pardoned Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin.
“He died with a cloud over his head, he died convicted of a crime he did not commit,” Daughter of Charles Greenlee, Carol Lorenzo Greenlee said.
Fried, who is a member of the Clemency Board, said last year she wanted to see the Clemency Board and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement issue a proclamation of exoneration. While a pardon excuses a person found guilty of a crime, an exoneration would acknowledge their innocence.
“Pardons were a major step forward, and the Greenlee family is very grateful to the Cabinet members for their actions earlier this year,” said Carol Greenlee, the daughter of Charles Greenlee. “Exoneration is the last step. My father didn’t commit this crime, and after more than 70 years, exoneration would mean everything to our family. He would be fully cleared and justice would be served.”
On Tuesday, family members of the men, community leaders, Fried, State Rep. Geraldine Thompson (D-Windermere) and State Sen. Gary Farmer (D-Fort Lauderdale) called on the Florida Cabinet to exonerate the men.
“The Cabinet’s vote in January of 2019 to pardon the Groveland Four is appreciated by many as a positive step; however, we want it understood that it isn’t enough to pardon individuals for crimes they didn’t commit, and we’re asking for exoneration,” State Senator Thompson said.
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Thompson announced Tuesday she would push for a joint House-Senate resolution, to exonerate the men and ensure that the state officially recognizes their innocence.
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, then Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot Irvin and Shepherd, claiming the handcuffed men were trying to escape. One of them died.
“I was proud to stand with my cabinet colleagues to issue a pardon of the Groveland Four — but more action is needed. Their families have called for exoneration, and I join them in that. A pardon forgives a crime, but an exoneration recognizes innocence. Our history books should reflect truth: these men were falsely accused of crimes they never committed,” Commissioner Nikki Fried said.
The two surviving men were eventually paroled.
The wrongful conviction of the Groveland Four and their unjust treatment is one chapter in Florida’s racially charged history.
During his time as sheriff, McCall killed several African-American Floridians, including kicking an inmate to death in 1972, claiming self-defense.
Less than two months after McCall shot Irvin and Shepherd, the home of civil rights leaders Harry and Harriette Moore was bombed in Brevard County. Both died of their injuries. No one was ever charged in the case.
According to the 2012 investigation, KKK Klansmen had a floor plan of the Moore family home and other clues indicate collusion between the killers and law enforcement officials, including McCall.
On Tuesday, in addition to elected officials and families, civil rights advocates called on the state to recognize its history and move forward.
“This generation of leadership has a moral imperative to right the wrongs of previous leaders,” Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Central Florida Urban League Dick Batchelor said. “The action to exonerate the Groveland Four is not only an obligatory signal to African Americans who have paid the cost of the past sins of blind racism — but a critically important overture to current and future generations that such injustice was not in vain and there is no going back to the ‘good ole days.’ ”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.