On this dayApr 09, 1951

Supreme Court Reverses Wrongful Conviction in Florida; Sheriff Later Shoots Both Defendants

Image | State Archives of Florida; Florida Memory

In 1949, four young black men were arrested and accused of rape in Groveland, Florida. The case, which hinged on the allegation of a young white woman with inconsistent stories of the offenses, came to be known as the "Groveland Four" and forever changed the lives of the four defendants: Earnest Thomas, who was lynched by a mob prior to trial; Samuel Shepherd; Walter Irvin; and 16-year-old Charles Greenlee.

Before their first trial, the three surviving defendants were brutally beaten and tortured in the Lake County Jail run by Sheriff Willis McCall. Despite the advocacy of NAACP Lawyer Thurgood Marshall, as well as ample evidence of innocence, police misconduct, and rampant racial bias, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin were convicted and sentenced to death, while Charles Greenlee was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. 

The NAACP appealed and, on April 9, 1951, the United States Supreme Court overturned the convictions and death sentences of Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin. The Court ruled the trials had been unconstitutional because black people were illegally excluded from serving on the defendants' juries. 

Despite this victory, the saga of the Groveland Four was far from over. Months later, in November 1951, Sheriff Willis McCall volunteered to personally transport Mr. Shepherd and Mr. Irvin back to jail from Florida State Prison. On the way, alone and at night on a deserted road, McCall shot both men and later claimed self-defense. 

Mr. Shepherd died instantly from his wounds, but Mr. Irvin survived and gave a statement insisting that McCall shot both men unprovoked. The sheriff was nevertheless cleared of any wrongdoing and remained in office until 1972 -- when he was indicted for the murder of another black prisoner.

Soon after healing from his wounds, Walter Irvin was retried, again convicted and again sentenced to death. In 1955, Florida's governor commuted Mr. Irvin's sentence to life imprisonment; he was released on parole in 1968, and Charles Greenlee was paroled in 1962. 

In 2012, FBI investigative documents surfaced showing that, as early as 1949, medical examinations of the Groveland Four's accuser revealed no evidence of assault. In 2016, the Lake County Commission issued an official apology for the injustice of the case, and in 2019, Florida's governor pardoned the men. Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin did not live to see either development.

The gripping story of the Groveland Four is detailed in Gilbert King's 2013  book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.

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