The Horrific Story of the Groveland Four Denied Justice Until Recently
A story which is so familiar in history.
The Groveland Four’s story is not unique; it is a story that has happened throughout America. Familiarise yourself with Black American history; you will come across many stories where justice was not served—cases where good men were killed, and criminals walked free.
Parallels can be made between this incident and To Kill a Mockingbird, the difference being that this incident happened to real men, some of who lost their lives. These stories must be told if there is any hope of changing law enforcement and providing equality for all.
On 16th July 1949, Norma Padgett was seventeen-years-old; she had just been to the local dance at Groveland, Florida. She was driving back with her husband Willie when the car stalled and refused to start again.
According to Norma, four men stopped to help them with the car. These four men then beat her husband and abducted her. Then, taking her somewhere quiet, they raped and beat her. Once the couple recovered enough to move, they went to the police to report the sexual assault.
Initial Police Response
The case was picked up by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, who put a posse together to find the culprits. He marched with his mob into black neighbourhoods to investigate the crime.
Once in the neighbourhoods, the mob started to burn houses and threaten the residents. That was when they discovered two of the suspects they were looking for, World War Two veterans Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irwin.
Both men admitted to stopping and helping the couple but denied the assaults. With this, they were both taken to the crime scene, where McCall became highly frustrated as their footprints did not match those found there.
Regardless, he took both men to jail, where he handcuffed them in the basement and beat them into unconsciousness.
Two More Suspects
Norma stated that four men had attacked her. The third suspect to be arrested was Charles Greenlee, who was sixteen at the time of the arrest. He denied knowing the other two suspects, but this did not deter McCall.
Greenlee was beaten to the extent that he admitted to the rape charge to stop the torture. Records show that Greenlee was twenty miles away during the rape, being held on another charge. Again this did not stop the police from charging him.
During his interrogation, Greenlee mentioned the fourth suspect Ernest Thomas. Thomas, who was married, had kindly helped the young man obtain work when he came to town.
When Thomas heard about the arrests and that he was wanted for the same crime, he fled—a posse of one thousand white men was determined to track him down. One week later, they found Thomas sleeping under a tree in a swamp. He was shot four hundred times.
The doctor who had examined Norma on the day of the attack stated that he could find no evidence of assault or rape. However, this did nothing to help the three accused men as they were denied the right to call him to trial to give evidence in their defence.
It took the white jury no time to find all three men guilty. Shepherd and Irwin were sentenced to death, and Greenlee to life in prison due to his age.
In 1951, however, the death sentences were appealed, and the US Supreme Court ordered that a retrial needed to be held to convict the men.
Before the case, both Irwin and Shepherd were transferred from prison to Lam County Jailhouse. Furious at the decision, Sheriff McCall decided he would provide the transport himself.
On the journey, he pulled over and shot both men. He claimed that they had tried to escape, so he was given no choice but to shoot. However, reports show that he radioed into control on the night of the incident with this message,
I got rid of them; killed the sons of bitches.
When a deputy arrived at the scene, he discovered that Irwin was still alive, so he shot him in the neck. Although Irwin stated after the incident that he survived by playing dead, he also denied the escape attempt.
The retrial then got underway, where once again, the all-white jury found the two men guilty and upheld their original sentences. However, Irwin’s sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1954.
The two men served their time in prison. Irwin was eventually paroled in 1968; he died one year later of a heart attack. Greenlee was paroled in 1962; he left Florida and died in 2012, seven years before justice would be served.
On Greenlee’s death, his family never stopped fighting; the four men were given a posthumous pardon in 2019 by Governor Ron De Santis and went on to be completely exonerated in 2021.
We all know how things were back then. All you had to do was be black. The reason we’re here today is because Irvin didn’t die. God allowed him to live to tell the story. - Wade Greenlee, the brother of Charles, told the Tampa Bay Times.
As for those involved in the crime that happened to these four men, they were never brought to justice. Sheriff McCall was cleared of all wrongdoing in the murder of Shepherd and the attempted murder of Irwin. None of the other police faced any charges.
Harry Moore, who fought for the first retrial in the 1950s, was murdered with his wife Harriet in a house bombing in 1951. Police failed to find the culprits.
Norma Padgett has never changed her story, even appearing at the pardoning hearing to state that she was telling the truth and these men had ruined her life. It is primarily thought that it was her husband that attacked her.
Her parents had warned the young man that there would be trouble if he hurt their daughter. Rather than facing her parents’ anger, the couple blamed it on four innocent black men with their lives ahead of them.