The Groveland Four probably won’t be pardoned today, but their families are optimistic

Today's meeting of the Clemency Board is listed as just a "discussion" about the Groveland Four, and public comment isn't scheduled.
Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, far left, and an unidentified man stand next to Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee.Florida Memory Project
Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, far left, and an unidentified man stand next to Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee.Florida Memory Project
Published January 11

It's been 70 years since four young black men entered one of the worst chapters in Florida's history, wrongly accused of raping a white woman and tortured, killed or wrongly imprisoned at the hands of racist mobs and a racist sheriff.

But there's a chance their names are cleared today.

Florida's new governor and Cabinet will meet this morning to discuss their case, although families of the Groveland Four and their supporters aren't expecting a pardon today.

And they're mostly okay with that.

"I appreciate the governor even just discussing it," said Wade Greenlee, the younger brother of Charles Greenlee, who was just 16 when he was arrested in 1949, beaten in a jail cell and sentenced to life in prison. "I would love to meet him if I could, just to say, 'Thank you.'"

Today's meeting of the Clemency Board is listed as just a "discussion" about the Groveland Four.

(The Clemency Board and the Cabinet are the same, consisting of the governor, the attorney general, the chief financial officer and the agriculture commissioner.)

There is no public comment scheduled, even though Clemency Board meetings usually allow applicants to plead their case.

That's left supporters believing that a second clemency meeting will finally clear their names.

"I think people should be optimistic, not upset," said Gary Corsair, the author of the 2002 book The Groveland Four: The Sad Saga of a Legal Lynching. "It's been 60 years. What's another three or four months?"

Their hopes for a pardon were high nearly two years ago, when the Florida Legislature unanimously passed a bill asking former Gov. Rick Scott to pardon the four men.

But Scott refused. His successor, Gov. Ron DeSantis, who took office on Tuesday, vowed last month to make it a "priority," saying that "justice was miscarried."

Other members of the new Cabinet have also expressed interest in pardons.

But behind the scenes, the family of their accusers are saying they shouldn't be pardoned.

Two sons of Norma Padgett, who set the events in motion when she accused  the men of raping her, told the Orlando Sentinel this week that their mom was telling the truth about the incident.

"My mom don't lie,"  Curtis Upshaw told the Sentinel. "She's a good Christian lady."

Scott, now a U.S. Senator, said Thursday that he was never personally lobbied by Padgett's family against a pardon. He never chose to speed up the pardon process for the four men, even though that's what the Legislature asked him to do.

"The way I always looked at clemency is there is a process and I made people go through that process," he said. "I was very cautious and get all the facts. They were doing that in December. They weren't done by the time I left."

A mountain of evidence over the decades has revealed the rape accusations were rotten from the start.

Greenlee, for example, was 20 miles away when the alleged rape happened. Walter Irvin, a World War II veteran who had been discharged just days before the event, had his case overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, only to be sentenced a second time with manufactured evidence.

His sister, Henrietta Irvin, who now lives in Miami, said her brother "wasn't this type of person." Their father, she added, never got over it.

She's cautiously optimistic that her brother's name will be cleared — eventually.

"It looks good, but you never can tell until it happens," she said. "I've been waiting a long time for something to happen."

Either way, Wade Greenlee, who is traveling to Tallahassee from Jacksonville for the hearing, is excited.

"We're this close," he said.

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Contorno contributed to this report.

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