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Formal Apology To “Groveland Four” Moving Forward In Florida Legislature

From left, Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, and Samuel Shepherd were wrongfully prosecuted for rape in 1949. A fourth man, Ernest Thomas, was killed during a manhunt before he could be arrested. Photo: Gary Corsair

A formal apology for the so-called Groveland Four is gaining momentum in Tallahassee.

State lawmakers want to acknowledge the mistreatment of four young black men who were denied fair trials.

In 1949, Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin, Ernest Thomas, and 16-year-old Charles Greenlee were accused of raping a white woman in Lake County. The story of their arrests and trials is considered one of the great miscarriages of justice in the years prior to the civil rights movement.

All four men have since died. Thomas was killed by a posse when he fled the area after the allegation surfaced. The remaining three were found guilty by an all-white jury, but their attorney offered evidence to the court that they were beaten until two of them confessed.

In 1951, while transporting Shepherd and Irvin, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall claimed the two tried to escape and he shot them, killing Shepherd. Irvin denied they’d been trying to escape, saying McCall shot them unprovoked.

McCall and some of his deputies were later accused of manufacturing evidence in this and other cases.

On Thursday, Fort Lauderdale Democratic Representative Bobby Dubose told his fellow lawmakers that even decades later, the men and their families deserve an apology. “Families who during this time had their homes burned down,” added Dubose. “Families with children who grew up not knowing their fathers, but only knowing their records. This resolution is us simply saying we’re sorry.”

The measure is now moving in both chambers.

Last year, Groveland city officials passed a proclamation calling for the men’s exoneration.

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