Florida’s new Governor DeSantis grants posthumous pardons to 4 black men unfairly convicted of 1949 rape

Hanna Bogorowski, DCNF

  • GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis stood with Florida’s Executive Clemency board Friday and posthumously pardoned four black men convicted of rape in 1949.
  • Norma Padgett, who was 17 at the time, claimed she was dragged from her car, raped and threatened.
  • DeSantis called the case a “miscarriage of justice.”

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, along with the state’s cabinet, met Friday with the families of four black men who were accused of raping a white woman in 1949, a meeting that unexpectedly ended in a posthumous pardon for all the men.

Florida’s clemency board met to hear from the families of the accused, known as the Groveland Four, on their stories of imprisonment, torture and murder. A vote was not expected to occur at the end of the meeting, but DeSantis called for one.

“I believe in the principles of the Constitution. I believe in getting a fair shake,” DeSantis said, according to the Miami Herald. “I don’t think there’s any way that you can look at this case and see justice was carried out.”

One of the Groveland Four was killed before he could be charged, and the other three were convicted on “dubious evidence,” the Associated Press reported.

“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” DeSantis tweeted Friday.

The families of Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas argued there was overwhelming evidence that the men were innocent, but Norma Padgett, who was 17 at the time, insisted to the board that the rape did occur.

Padgett, now 86, says she was dragged from her car and told not to speak while the men pointed a gun to her head, threatening to “blow [her] brains out.”

“I’m the victim of that night. I tell you now, that it’s been on my mind for 70 years. I was 17 years old and it’s never left my mind,” she said. “I’m begging y’all not to give the pardons because they did it. If you do, you’re going to be just like them.”

“It never happened. You all are liars,” said Beverly Robinson, a niece of one of the accused men.

Author Gilbert King wrote a 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the Groveland Four’s story, titled “Devil in the Grove.” King also testified in front of the board.

“He was clearly convicted by a person who just said he did it. The climate of those times – that’s all they need,” Greenlee’s son, Thomas, argued in front of the board, alluding to a pre-Civil Rights Movement time in America’s history.

“He wasn’t there for birthdays. He wasn’t there to help with homework. He just was not there. You put someone into a situation where you not only affect him, but the whole family,” he added.

The men were convicted by an all-white jury.

DeSantis told reporters after the unanimous vote that the Groveland Four’s trial and situation was a “perversion of justice.”

Padgett’s 1949 accusation occurred in Lake County, Florida. Three of the men were arrested and beaten, while Thomas got away.

Thomas was hunted down by a mob of nearly 1,000 men who shot him 400 times after finding him sleeping under a tree.

White members of the community at the time also burned down and fired guns into homes in black neighborhoods.

The Floria legislature passed a bill in 2017 requesting then-Gov. Rick Scott to pardon the Groveland Four, but he did not comply.

“The thing is, when you’re looking at these issues of pardons, you still have to have good justice even if someone wasn’t innocent,” DeSantis said Friday. “To me, I look at how this whole thing went and I think that when the Legislature passed the resolution in 2017, they were right. This was a miscarriage of justice.”

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