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On Senate Floor, Rubio Calls for Pardons for “the Groveland Four”

Dec 18, 2018 | Press Releases

Washington, D.C. – On the Senate floor today, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) urged Florida officials to pardon “the Groveland Four,” four young African American men who were victims of institutionalized racial hatred in Lake County, Florida, in 1949 and subsequent years. 
A rough transcript of his remarks is below. A high-quality version for broadcast is available here.
Rubio: We’re talking about the subject of justice, and I thought it was appropriate to take a couple of minutes here as we get ready to vote to signify a unique injustice that occurred in the state of  Florida 70 years ago. In July of 1949, a white couple was driving their couple when it broke down on a rural road near Groveland, Florida. Two black men, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd, stopped to help the couple. What followed was a horrifying injustice. It haunts Florida and truly the nation to this day. Norma Padgett was the white woman in that truck. She was 17 years old. She told police that she had been abducted and raped by four black men. Many locals at the time doubted her story. Her estranged husband was known to be a drinker and to become violent with her. Many suspected she had made up these accusations to cover up for his abuse.
The Sheriff’s Office nevertheless detained three men for this alleged crime. Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd, the two men who had stopped to help the couple were both World War II veterans. They both denied abducting or raping the woman. Nevertheless, they were detained and they were brutally beaten in the basement of the Sheriff’s Office in the jail until they confessed to a crime they did not commit. A few days later Mr. Shepherd’s family home was burned to the ground. A third man, 16-year-old Charles Greenlee, who only 16, so really a boy, at the time that truck broke down he was 20 miles away, a fact that was testified to by a store watchman. He didn’t even know Mr. Irvin or Mr. Shepherd.
And the woman whose own husband testified that he was not one of the four men that he alleges had brutally beaten him and abducted and raped his wife, but he too was taken to the basement of that jail and brutally beaten. A fourth man, Ernest Thomas, he was never arrested because he was hunted down over 30 hours by an armed posse of over 1,000 men, including the County Sheriff. They found him sleeping under a tree in Madison County, Florida, and they shot him to death. Greenlee, Irvin and Shepherd were tried. The judge over that case denied their attorney access to exculpatory evidence. The judge in that case barred testimony about how they had been beaten until they confessed and an all-white jury convicted them, sentenced Irvin and Shepherd to death and sentenced 16-year-old Greenlee to life in prison. Then a young attorney named Thurgood Marshall took up their case. He appealed it to the Supreme Court of the United States, which found that they did not receive a fair trial. In fact, Justice Robert Jackson said the trial was, “one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to American justice.” The Supreme Court ordered a retrial.
Well, a few months later the same Sheriff that was part of that posse picked up Mr. Irvin and Mr. Shepherd from jail to transport them from prison to a hearing before the trial. Then he pulled over his car, pulled the two men, handcuffed the two men out of the car and he shot them. Mr. Shepherd died. Mr. Irvin played dead. The F.B.I. later found evidence that he had been shot while laying on the ground handcuffed to Mr. Shepherd. By the way, lying wounded, his treatment was delayed because the hospital refused to transport him because he was a black man. Mr. Irvin was eventually retried and again convicted in another sham trial and again sentenced to death. By 1955, the facts of the case were so troubling that Florida Governor LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence, took him off death row, and commuted his sentence to life in prison. Finally in 1968, he was paroled by Governor Claude Kirk. One year later Mr. Irvin returned to Lake County for a funeral. He was found dead in his car. Mr. Greenlee, the 16-year-old at the time of the manufactured crime, was paroled in 1960. He left Florida and died in April of 2012 at the age of 78.
In 2017, the Florida Legislature unanimously voted to issue what are now known as “the Groveland Four,” a formal and heartfelt apology. And they asked the State’s cabinet to undertake an expedited review of the case and issue pardons. I come here today to talk about this case because while there is nothing we can do to give Mr. Thomas or Mr. Shepherd back their lives, there’s nothing we can do to give Mr. Irvin or Mr. Greenlee back the years they spent in jail for a crime they did not commit we can give these men back their good name. What we can do now, as a state in Florida, is seek the forgiveness of their families and of them for the grave injustice that was committed against them. And this is what I come here to the Senate today to urge the new Florida cabinet to do as soon as possible after they take office next month. Because after 70 years, it is time for Florida to do the right thing for “the Groveland Four.”