Gladson talks process for Groveland Four’s exoneration

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Posted March 24, 2023 | By Makayla Gray 

Nearly 75 years ago, one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice took place in Central Florida when four Black men were wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a white teenage girl and beating her husband. 

Decades later, the record was finally set straight as the men, known as the Groveland Four, were officially pardoned by the State of Florida in 2019. Marion County State Attorney William “Bill” Gladson, whose team uncovered new evidence that led to the criminal case finally being put to rest in 2021, recently spoke about the case in a two-part informational series. 

During the sessions on March 12 and 19 at Fort King Presbyterian Church in Ocala, Gladson detailed the saga that has inspired numerous TV shows, countless news stories and the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America,” by Gilbert King. 

Gladson was joined in the presentation by Aaron Newson, a nephew of Ernest Thomas, one of the Groveland Four. Newson presented some of his own research findings, which said will be included in his book, which he expects to have published in November. 

The sessions began with an overview of the case and an explanation of Gladson’s involvement. 

In July 1949, a 17-year-old white girl in Groveland, Lake County, said she and her husband were headed home from a night of dancing when their car broke down and they were then attacked by four Black men. Her husband reportedly was beaten, and she was taken away and sexually assaulted at gunpoint by the four men. 

Reports at the time stated the woman told authorities she was able to escape to a diner off County Road 33 where she met the diner owner’s son, Gladson said. The woman reportedly told the man that she was fine. 

Then-Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall quickly accused four young African American men—Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas—with the crimes. The arrests spurred racial outrage, and within days, an angry mob of more than 1,000 men hunted down Thomas and killed him, riddling his body with more than 400 bullets. 

The remaining three suspects were put on trial and convicted. Shepherd and Irvin received death sentences, while Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison because he was only 16 at the time of the alleged crimes. 

The head of the NAACP in Florida at the time, Harry T. Moore, was persistent in pressing the FBI to come to Lake County to investigate this case, Gladson said. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1951 unanimously overturned the convictions of Shepherd and Irvin, who were defended by NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, a future U.S. Supreme Court justice. 

The court ordered a new trial, but in 1951 McCall shot and killed Shepherd and seriously wounded Irvin as they were being transported for a pretrial hearing. McCall claimed they were trying to escape. 

At the second trial, Irvin was again convicted, and he was sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life in prison, and he was paroled in 1968. He died the following year. Greenlee also was convicted, and he was paroled in 1962. He died in 2012. 

That’s where things stood until many years later. 

“The reason that the State Attorney’s Office got involved was back in 2018, the Florida Department Law Enforcement was asked to look at this case by Attorney General Pam Bondi right before she left office,” Gladson said. 

The FDLE turned the case over to Gladson’s office in 2021. Just before Gladson was about to issue a final report closing the case for lack of new evidence, an investigator located a trove of overlooked documents in a vault in Lake County. 

Gladson explained that there were two trials: one in Tavares and one in Ocala, due to change of venue requests. “That’s relevant because it explains, I think, why some of the evidence was not where people were looking for the evidence for so many years,” he said. 

The new evidence was compelling, he noted. 

“When I look at this evidence today, it just does not support these allegations at all, not in the slightest bit,” Gladson said. 

There was an account of two of the Groveland Four men being together that night. It was thought that Irvin and Shepherd knew only each other and that Greenlee and Thomas only knew one another. Newson shared with the audience that his uncle, Ernest Thomas, actually did know Shepherd. 

Irvin and Shepherd had been arrested at Shepherd’s house after deputies found a car parked outside that matched the description provided by the young woman. 

In the second part of the series, Gladson disclosed some of the evidence that was uncovered and used to determine that these four men were not guilty. The evidence included Irvin’s pants as well as shoes from one of the men, and a footprint sample from the scene of the crime. 

Gladson and an investigator spoke with the grandson of Jesse Hunter, the prosecutor of the second trial. The grandson, Broward Hunter, disclosed that the judge and his grandfather both knew there was no case of rape from when the second trial was commencing. 

Gladson said documents from Hunter’s desk revealed that this case had ties to an investigation into an illegal bolita gambling operation. Newson said Thomas was involved with bolita. 

Based on new evidence uncovered in Lake County as well as other research, in October 2021, Gladson filed a “Motion to Dismiss Indictments of Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd, Motion to Set Aside Judgment and Sentence of Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin, and Motion to Correct Record with Newly Discovered Evidence.” 

“These officials, disguised as keepers of the peace and masquerading as ministers of justice, disregarded their oaths, and set in motion a series of events that forever destroyed these men, their families, and a community,” the motion states. “I have not witnessed a more complete breakdown of the criminal justice system, nor do I ever expect I will again.” 

Gladson requested the court dismiss the indictments against them, and Circuit Court Judge Heidi Davis granted the motion in Lake County in November 2021. 

With the research that he conducted, Newson said he believes the criminalization of the Groveland Four was a racially motivated act orchestrated by McCall. 

—Information from The Florida Bar News was used in this report. 

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