Florida’s incoming governor wants to consider a pardon for four young African-American men who were wrongly accused of raping a white woman nearly 70 years ago.
Republican Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis said in a statement Thursday he would make the cases of the Groveland Four a priority at the first meeting of the Florida Cabinet next month. The cases are considered among the greatest miscarriages of justice during Jim Crow-era Florida.
“Seventy years is a long time,” DeSantis said. “And that’s the amount of time four young men have been wrongly written into Florida history for crimes they did not commit and punishments they did not deserve.”
Florida’s outgoing governor Rick Scott and other Republicans on the state clemency board have refused to take up the pardon request, even though the Florida Legislature last year formally apologized and asked for a pardon.
The four men were wrongly accused of raping a white woman in 1949 in the central Florida town of Groveland, near Orlando.
One of the men, Ernest Thomas, was killed during a manhunt. The other three were convicted with dubious evidence.
Afterward, Samuel Shepherd was fatally shot by the local sheriff, Walter Irvin was shot and wounded by the sheriff and a deputy and Charles Greenlee was wrongly imprisoned. Future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, then with the NAACP, represented Irvin during a second trial.
Both Greenlee and Irvin were eventually paroled after serving lengthy prison sentences.
The Groveland Four’s story was recounted in Gilbert King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Devil in the Grove.”
Calls for a pardon had grown in the past week.
On Monday, Florida’s incoming agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried, said she would bring up the case at the next Florida Cabinet meeting. Two days later, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio called on Florida officials to formally pardon the men during a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Then, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis asked that the case be brought before the clemency board. The clemency board consists of the governor and three other elected officials. Outgoing Florida Attorney General on Wednesday also asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review the cases as a step toward clearing their names posthumously.
“Justice was miscarried for the Groveland Four beginning with events set in motion in 1949,” DeSantis said. “Though these men now lie in graves, their stories linger in search of justice.”