The story of the crimes of the four from Groveland is one of the greatest examples of the injustice of the American judiciary. To this day, it is a show of lawlessness with which a large part of the US population faces. Reason? The four from Groveland were four black men whose only crime was living in the American South.
On July 16, 1949, the Padgett couple, Norma and Willie, were returning by car from a night of fun in Lake County, Florida. During the journey, in the middle of a country road, the vehicle refused to obey them. When they tried to revive him, they were approached by four men who beat Willie and kidnapped and raped Norma, then seventeen.
The girl finally managed to escape the torturers and reach the police, where she gave testimony about the events of that tragic night. Within hours, the service arrested 16-year-old Charles Greenlee and two 22-year-old World War II veterans:Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepard. Behind the fourth suspect, Ernest Thomas, a chase was organized in which the local sheriff, Willis McCall, and around 1,000 local residents participated . Unfortunately, the dangerous villain failed to catch him alive. He was shot while escaping.
His companions, however, faced justice - all three were to receive the highest possible sentences. And that could end the story if we stick to the official version of the state prosecutor's office.
It only took one spark
The 1940s and 1950s saw an extraordinary escalation of racism in the southern states. The mood in this area was never favorable to African Americans, but the sight of black veterans returning from World War II fronts and strolling the streets in military uniforms only heated the already red-hearted cauldron of prejudices.
All it took was a spark to escalate violence and injustice to black Florida residents. The story of the rape of Norma just turned out to be one.
Within hours of the girl's testimony, members of the Ku Klux Klan raided the areas of Groveland inhabited by African Americans. They set fire to the houses of crime suspects and led to an outbreak of aggression against black people . The riots were only ended with the arrival of the National Guard, and one of the event leaders confessed in an interview that:"Next time we'll clean up every black episode in South Lake County."
Unfortunately, the evil has already happened - the suspects in the attack on Norma have been found guilty in the eyes of the local white community. Their fate was sealed.
Guilty by chance
During the testimony to the police, the girl gave the names of two of the four attackers - Irvin and Shepard. They were detained very quickly. On the other hand, the police chose the two missing accused themselves. Besides, they didn't have to look far for the first one.
16-year-old Charles Greenlee had been detained hours earlier for vagrancy. A boy just arrived in Groveland looking for a citrus harvest job . His family situation forced him to do so - his young wife was pregnant. He was encouraged to come to Lake County by Ernest Thomas, whom Greenlee released as the fourth torturer.
Within a few hours of the girl's testimony, members of the Ku Klux Klan invaded the Groveland areas inhabited by African Americans
It was interesting to note that the moment the police arrested Charles was the moment the attack on Norma and her husband began. The boy, until the stop, did not even know about the existence of this girl. However, for the officers, he turned out to be the perfect scapegoat who, under the influence of beatings and torture, turned Ernest into an accomplice.
Thomas managed to save himself from arrest. His escape lasted 10 days. Unfortunately, the pursuit team caught up with him on July 26 in the morning while he was sleeping under a tree in Madison County. Sheriff Willis McCall, who led the expedition, had never had any plans to bring Ernest alive to justice. The man was killed on the spot after over 400 shots were fired at him . His death by the coroner's office was considered a legitimate murder, committed as a result of a manhunt for a dangerous fugitive.
The three remaining Groveland survivors knew their chances of acquittal were zero.
No chance to defend
Harry Moore, president of the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in Florida, saw immediately that the Groveland four arrest was far from fair. He decided to provide them with adequate defense in the form of young, black lawyers led by Thurgood Marshall (the future first African-American Supreme Court judge). Unfortunately, taking up this case not only showed lawyers the level of corruption in local services, but also posed a serious threat to their lives . Florida was considered the most dangerous state for African Americans at the time. The young defenders moved to a new place every night so that the Ku Klux Klan would not get them.
Three of the accused had signs of beatings and abuse on their bodies:knocked out teeth, scars on the back, torsos, wrists, fractures, swelling of the testicles and other signs clearly confirmed that their interrogations were not conducted in accordance with the law and that the statements had been forced by the investigators. These injuries were open evidence of abuse, as well as information about the forgery of, for example, footprints by the police at the crime scene. Unfortunately, it didn't help at all.
When, during the trial, Norma Padgett pointed out to the court and the white jury the three accused as the perpetrators of the beatings and rape, everyone in the courtroom (including the defense attorneys) knew that this was the end of the case.
Neither Thurgood's efforts to approve the results of the FBI investigation into possible negligence and errors nor the request for disclosure of Norma's medical report after the rape helped. The prosecutor considered that the study was a private matter between the patient and the doctor.
Charles Greenlee, 16, was sentenced to life in prison (on account of being a minor), and Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepard to the electric chair.
Fight for survival
Thurgood Marshall, with the support of the NAACP, refused to surrender and appealed to the Supreme Court on the two sentenced to death. In 1951, the sentences were quashed on the basis of unfavorable pre-trial publicity and remitted to a lower court for reconsideration.
On the way back from the trial to Lake County, prisoners were escorted by Sheriff Willis McCall. On the pretext of having a flat tire, the man pulled down onto a dirt road, then dragged handcuffed Irvin and Shepard out of the vehicle and shot them in cold blood . Samuel died on the spot, but the wounded Walter was lying next to his friend, pretending to be dead.
After the attack, the sheriff called the deputy on the radio and said, "Come on, I got rid of those bastards." When his partner arrived, he saw that Irvin was still alive and shot him. The bullet hit the neck. The officers then called for reinforcements, notifying the prisoners who had been killed in an escape attempt. Later it turned out that Samuel somehow managed to survive.
Sheriff Willis McCall, Prison Guard Reuben Hatcher, Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, and Samuel Shepherd, Lake County Jail, Lake County, Florida, 1949
At the hospital, he reported everything to lawyers and the FBI, who returned to the scene of the crime and dug up a cartridge confirming the shot fired by the deputy. However, in this case, justice was not done. The coroner's jury, made up entirely of white people (including many of McCall's friends) found Shepard's death self-defense in 30 minutes and cleared the sheriff of all charges.
The shooting, however, opened the eyes of people previously blinded by McCall's words, incl. journalist Mabel Norris Reese. After this event, she changed the way of writing about the Groveland Four, bringing to light all the sheriff's lies . KKK did not like her actions, which in retaliation burned her house, poisoned her dog and burned crosses on her lawn. And although they managed to chase Mabel out of the city in this way, they failed to silence her. She has since become one of the voices of openly writing about racism in the United States.
Unfortunately, the appeal of Irvin and Shepard took the lives of two more, the president of the NAACP in Florida and his wife. They died as a result of a bomb planted in their home on Christmas 1951 by members of the KKK.
The law of grace
Reconsideration of the case did not bring a new judgment. Walter refused to plead guilty, which was supposed to soften the verdict and change it to life imprisonment. It also didn't help to move the hearing to Marion County, Florida. Shepard was sentenced to the electric chair again.
The sentence was to be carried out in 1955. Fortunately, the new governor, Thomas LeRoy Collins, after reviewing the case files, stated that Irvin's guilt could not be clearly indicated and changed his sentence to life imprisonment at the last minute.
Eventually, Walter was paroled in 1968. In 1969, he visited Lake County, where he was found dead in a car - officially natural.
The 1940s and 1950s saw a remarkable escalation of racism in the southern states
Charles Greenlee was released on parole in 1962. He and his wife and daughter moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where a son was born to the couple. The man died in 2012. Before his death, he managed to read a book that later helped lead to the acquittal of the four from Groveland.
In search of justice
In 2012, the book "Devil in the Grove:Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America" by Gilbert King was released. This extensive coverage quickly caught the attention of many people and won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction the following year.
In his book, King reached out to classified FBI reports that included police confessions of torturing the Groveland Four, fabricating evidence, perjury, and Norma's testimony, clearly different from those given later to trial.
King also gained insight into the medical report created after the girl's forensic examination. It clearly showed that the doctor examining her did not find any signs of rape or even sexual intercourse.
Interestingly, the writer also found information that Padgett's marriage, as a result of pressure from Norma's parents, was separated due to her husband's aggression. In the summer of 1949, the couple was supposed to get back together. The night they returned from the dance, their car broke down, and Irvin and Shepard stopped to help them. As a thank you, Norma wanted to give the men some whiskey, which her husband did not like . He made a racist comment at them, for which he was beaten by Sheppard. Then Walter and Samuel walked away from the couple and that was all over.
In his book, King found out about classified FBI reports by the prosecution that included police confessions of torturing the Groveland Four
Willie's pride, however, did not let him pass by indifferently to the whole situation. In doing so, he created a story about an attack and rape by four African Americans, which was under duress by Norma.
In 2016, the case of the posthumous acquittal of the four from Groveland, the clearing of their names and an apology to their families began. The entire process ended on November 22, 2021.
Interestingly, despite all the evidence, the nearly 90-year-old Norma still claimed that she was raped by men on that fateful night in July. Her voice no longer had the same power as he had in 1949.