Florida pardons four black men of 1949 rape of white girl | News | DW | 11.01.2019
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Florida pardons four black men of 1949 rape of white girl

The four black men, known as the Groveland Four, have been exonerated by Florida's governor of the 1949 rape of a white girl. None of the men were alive to see it.

Four African-American men have been exonerated of raping a 17-year-old white girl in 1949, Florida officials said on Friday.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the state's three-member Cabinet, acting as a clemency board, granted the men pardons after hearing testimonies from the men's families and the now-elderly woman who had accused the men of rape at a farm in the town of Groveland.

None of the men, known as the Groveland Four, lived to see their acquittal.

'Miscarriage of justice'

Following the hour-long hearing, Governor DeSantis described the legal case against the group as a "miscarriage of justice."

"I don't know that there's any way you can look at this case and think that those ideals of justice were satisfied," he said. "Indeed, they were perverted time and time again."

Ron DeSantis (picture alliance/AP Photo/D. Wagner)

Ron DeSantis, a former military lawyer, became governor in January

The alleged victim reiterated her claim that the group had raped her after pulling her out of a car and threatening to shoot her if she screamed.

Shot 400 times

In 1949, the white teenager accused Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, and Samuel Shepherd of raping her. Thomas fled before he could be arrested, the other three were caught and severely beaten.

A posse of about 1,000 men pursued Thomas. He was eventually found sleeping under a tree and shot 400 times.

Separately, a white mob raided a black neighborhood, burning houses and firing guns into homes in days-long unrest.

The remaining three were tried and found guilty by an all-white jury. Some of the evidence in their favor, including a doctor's conclusion that the 17-year-old was probably not raped, had been withheld.

Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison, and Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to death. Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African-American justice on the US Supreme Court, took up Irvin and Shepherd's appeals and eventually won them a retrial.

Surviving a bullet to the neck

Shortly before the trials began, local sheriff Willis McCall shot both men, killing Shepherd and severely injuring Irvin, who had been shot in the neck. McCall claimed that the men tried to escape while they were being transferred between prisons.

Irvin was retried, found guilty and once again sentenced to death, despite a former FBI agent testifying that the prosecution had manufactured evidence against the defendant. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison.

Irvin was paroled in 1968 and found dead in his car a year later. Greenlee was paroled in 1960 and died in 2012.

'That's enough out of you'

During Friday's hearing, Shepherd's cousin, Beverly Robinson, briefly confronted the woman who claimed the rape took place.

"It never happened. You all are liars," Robinson told the woman and her sons.

The woman replied: "That's enough out of you."

She said she did not want the men pardoned.

"Y'all just don't know what kind of horror I've been through for all these many years," she said. "I know (Robinson) called me a liar, but I'm not no liar."

'This crime did not happen'

Florida state Senator Gary Farmer said that woman's comments were disappointing.

"She's now here at the end of her life and she had a chance to come clean, to seek forgiveness for herself and to support the justice these four families and these four men deserve," Farmer said.

 "It's very sad that she lost this opportunity and continues to perpetuate this lie. This crime did not happen. The evidence is overwhelming."

dj/amp (AP, Reuters)

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