Florida Says “Sorry” to the Groveland Four, But Is an Apology Enough?
In April 2017, the Florida legislature passed a resolution (HCR 631) formally apologizing for the unjust prosecution and persecution of the “Groveland Four”, and calling for their exoneration by Governor Rick Scott. The “Groveland Four” is the popularized moniker for Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas; four young black males (age 16 and up) accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman in Groveland, 1948. The infamous case took place during the Jim Crow era, following generations of wrongfully accused, wrongfully prosecuted, wrongfully convicted, and wrongfully executed black citizens. Shortly after they were accused of the crime, Samuel Shepard and Walter Irvin, both World War II veterans, were abducted by law enforcement officers and taken to a secluded spot to be beaten and tortured. After this assault, the deputy officer took Shepard and Irvin to the scene of the crime, only to find that their shoes did not match the footprints that allegedly belonged to the true assailants. Frustrated, the officers took Shepard and Irvin to an interrogation room where they were beaten and tortured until they confessed.
Eventually, Charles Greenlee was picked up by the authorities and subjected to the same treatment a
Shepard and Irvin, but Ernest Thomas caught wind of the investigation and attempted to flee. Thomas’s flight incited a lynch mob, led by both the local sheriff’s department as well as the Ku Klux Klan. The mob not only hunted down and killed Thomas over 200 miles away, but also terrorized the black, segregated section of Groveland, burning down the suspects’ houses and causing numerous black residents to abandon the city in fear. Sheriff Willis McCall, though complicit in stirring up some of chaos, attempted restoring a semblance of order by having the remaining suspects moved from the local jail to the state prison to await trial. The NAACP and the FBI got involved with the case as national attention grew. After documenting the beatings and torture by local law enforcement, the FBI recommended that the Tampa U.S. Attorney General bring charges, but no indictments were made. Franklin Williams of the NAACP represented the remaining suspects, and through his own investigation, suspected the rape accusation was actually a cover-up of a domestic violence incident between the accuser and her boyfriend. During the trial, there was evidence that the suspects had not been in town during the incident and that the footprint (which never matched the suspects’ shoes) was fabricated by the deputy. Still, an all-white jury found Shepard, Irvin, and Greenlee guilty within minutes of deliberating, sentencing Shepard and Irvin to death, and 16-year-old Greenlee to life in prison.
The United States Supreme Court overturned the capital convictions (Greenlee never appealed) and remanded the case for retrial. Sheriff McCall was transferring Shepard and Irvin back to Lake County (Groveland’s county) for the trial, when McCall claimed he was attacked by the two black men and forced to shoot them in self-defense. Fortunately, Irvin survived the multiple gunshots and told his version of events, which included an unprovoked execution of Shepard and collusion between McCall and his deputy to cover up the failed execution of Irvin. At the retrial, eventual first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall represented Irvin, but faced problems similar to the first trial, and Irvin was sentenced to death again. The Florida governor spared Irvin and commuted his sentence to life in prison; Irvin went on to spend 14 years in prison and was released in 1968. He fled Florida for Tennessee, but came to visit Lake County in 1970, where he was found dead in his car. Greenlee was eventually released.
The terrible saga of the Groveland Four is only a snippet of the corruption and racism that plagued Lake County, Florida, and the criminal justice system as a whole during and after Jim Crow. Still, this recent formal apology only follows after mounting public pressure to acknowledges the horrendous wrongs of the state. In 2012, the same year Greenlee died, the book Devil in the Grove, which tells the story of the Groveland Four, came out. This book not only renewed interest in the case, but also won a Pulitzer Prize. The book drove a University of Florida student to launch a massive Change.org petition, and with the help of the Miami Herald and Greenlee’s daughter, the matter of an apology and exoneration finally reached a boiling point. Now that an acknowledgment and formal apology has passed the legislature, the wronged accused’s families – and history itself – await the posthumous exoneration by the governor.
If the governor eventually exonerates these innocent African Americans, after waiting over a year to do so, it would follow a growing trend of acknowledging the terrible failures of the criminal justice system and political leaders during the 20th century. However, given the quantity and severity of these failures, should leaders be taking more active steps to right these egregious wrongs, instead of simply apologizing and exonerating? While surviving family members of these victims may be gladdened by a formal acknowledgement of the truth, should they be compensated for their generational pain and suffering, lost wages, even lost earning potential? The impact of these unjust persecutions is not limited to their historical time period, nor to the victims’ families – the community, and even the whole nation, felt the repercussions of these state sanctioned racist acts. These acts also highlight glaring failures of accountability and checks and balances in the criminal justice system. Politicians score political points for acknowledging their state’s past, without taking proactive measures to prevent the same injustices in the future. Civil rights activists believe lawmakers should do more than just apologize, and instead commit resources to ensuring citizens are educated about these dark corners of history, as well as reforming law enforcement offices to ensure accountability and true justice. Others believe that the apologies are not even necessary; what happened in the past should remain there, and present-day America should not apologize for the sins of its fathers. Either way, as the nation reconciles more of these injustices, lawmakers should be thinking of ways to protect their constituents from future injustice.
Andrea Ogechi-Okoro graduated from Boston University School of Law in May 2018.