GROVELAND, Fla. — In 1949, the lives of four young Black men changed forever after a damaging accusation uprooted the entire community of Groveland.
At the time, 17-year-old Norma Padgett told police she and her husband were attacked by the men and raped her at gunpoint. The claims made led to violence against the Black community in rural Florida and the mobilization of the National Guard. The lead attorney for the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, took on the case, and the four men became known as the "Groveland Four."
Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas would spend the next 70 years labeled as criminals. Thomas was killed after the allegations, and the others have also died. In 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a posthumous pardon for the men.
However, on Monday morning a Lake County circuit judge cleared their names, issuing a ruling that exonerates them of the crime, according to NBC News and The Associated Press. The developments began when Bill Gladson, a local prosecutor, filed a request to dismiss Shepherd’s and Thomas’ indictments and set aside the judgments on Irvin and Greenlee.
“The evidence strongly suggests that a sheriff, a judge, and prosecutor all but guaranteed guilty verdicts in this case,” Gladson said in his motion. “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. I have not witnessed a more complete breakdown of the criminal justice system.”
In reviewing the case, Gladson interviewed the grandson of Jesse Hunter, the now-deceased prosecutor of two of the "Groveland Four" defendants. According to the grandson, Broward Hunter, his grandfather and a judge in the case knew there was no rape.
Gladson also mentions in his motion that James Yates, a deputy who served as a primary witness, likely fabricated evidence, according to the AP.
His appeal to dismiss charges was not based on if Padgett may be lying but on the misconduct of those involved in the case and fabrication of evidence.