In the summer of 1949, a 17-year-old lodged an accusation that would thrust the rural Florida community of Groveland into decadeslong turmiold: The White teenager told police she and her husband were driving home from a dance when they were attacked by four young Black men who abducted and raped her at gunpoint, reports NBC News.
The claims made by Norma Padgett, who is now in her 80s, set off a manhunt that spurred an onslaught of violence against Black residents of Groveland, near Orlando, mobilizing the National Guard and prompting Thurgood Marshall, then a lead attorney for the NAACP, to take up the cause of the men who would come to be known as the Groveland Four.
It took seven decades before the state of Florida formally recognized how the four accused — Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas — were failed by the criminal justice system. Thomas was gunned down by a mob in the wake of Padgett’s allegations, and the others have also since died. In 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued the Groveland Four a posthumous pardon.
But Monday morning, a circuit court judge in Lake County went further, clearing the charges against the men and issuing a ruling that effectively exonerated them of the crime. Bill Gladson, a local prosecutor, set the extraordinary move into motion last when he filed paperwork to toss Thomas’ and Shepherd’s indictments and set aside the sentences and judgments imposed on Greenlee and Irvin.
“We followed the evidence to see where it led us, and it led us to this moment,” Gladson said.
Carol Greenlee, the daughter of Charles Greenlee, who at 16 was the youngest of the suspects, wept and fell into the arms of those next to her as a judge formally dismissed the charges.
“If you know something is right, stand up for it,” she said later of the lessons she learned. “Be persistent.”
In an earlier statement, Carol Greenlee said that despite proclamations from the governor and the state Legislature and a monument dedicated in honor of the Groveland Four, the families were awaiting “full justice” from the judicial branch to feel vindicated.