While the case requesting pardons in the 70-year-old Groveland Four saga will be presented Friday to the new Florida Cabinet, a decision is unlikely until a special meeting can be scheduled of the Florida Executive Clemency Board, which is made up of the Cabinet members.
Advocates for the families of four young black men caught up in a case the Florida Legislature described as a “grave injustice” said they have been informed that the Cabinet, under Gov. Ron DeSantis, is expected to hear presentations on but not decide the pardons. Any action in the case will be withheld until a special meeting can be arranged, probably later in January.
A number of family members of the Groveland Four, Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin, and Charles Greenlee, as well as advocates, were expecting to attend Friday’s meeting in Tallahassee under the assumption that the pardons would be granted. But there may not even be opportunity for any of them to speak Friday, with public comment also being reportedly being deferred to the special meeting.
Among the advocates, state Rep. Geraldine Thompson of Orlando, who’s been crusading on behalf of the Groveland Four and for their surviving family members for at least five years, said Thursday she’ll be calling family members and suggesting it might not be worth their time to come to Tallahassee Friday.
Thompson said she spoke with DeSantis earlier this week and he indicated the matter would be resolved “within the month.” She said she then spoke with DeSantis’ Chief of Staff Shane Strum who clarified that Friday’s meeting will not likely include any votes.
“When I talked with the governor’s chief of staff, his understanding was that it [Friday’s meeting] was for discussion and that there would not be an opportunity for public comment,” Thompson said. “And my concern is that I did not want family members who I have invited to come and have nothing happen.”
Chris Hand, who represents a coalition of advocates and family members, said he had received the save indications that Thompson received. Hand said he also was advised that a special meeting would be called of the Executive Clemency Board, to deal exclusively with the Groveland Four case.
“As the Groveland Four families have been waiting 70 years for justice, our coalition will continue to advocate for quick action,” Hand said. “As I said before, we are encouraged by the positive comments that newly inaugurated Cabinet [Clemency Board] members have made about justice for the Groveland Four, and hope they will act soon to vindicate Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas.”
The four young black men were falsely accused in 1949 of raping a white woman, leading to one of the more horrific documented chain of events of Jim Crow-era injustice, according to later-released evidence. By 1955 the injustice was evident enough that then-Gov. Leroy Collins commuted one of the victims’ sentences from death to life in prison, though he stopped short of pardons, which likley would have been politically unthinkable in the era.
Two recent books, Gary Corsair and Gilbert King [who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book] have detailed the accounts and made compelling cases. That and contacts from family members led Thompson to take up a call for belated justice when she was in the Florida Senate in 2014. In 2017, while she was out of office, the Florida Legislature unanimously passed a resolution declaring the Groveland Four case a grave injustice, apologizing on behalf of the state, and calling for expedited pardons. Florida’s now-senior Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio also has called for expedited pardons.
Gov. Rick Scott ignored those calls. But DeSantis announced in December, while he was preparing to take office to succeed Scott, that he believed justice had been miscarried and he promised to take up the matter at his first Cabinet meeting, Friday.
Still, DeSantis did not explicitly say he would ask the Executive Clemency Board to decide the matter Friday.
Thomas was shot and killed by a mob in 1949. Shepherd was shot and killed while in custody. Irvin and Greenlee were convicted and imprisoned. Greenlee was convicted as a juvenile, so he only received a life sentence, while Irvin got the death penalty that Collins eventually commuted. The trials were sensations, with profound racist overtones. They were paroled in the 1960s. Irvin died in 1969, and Greenlee in 2012.
Technically only Irvin and Greenlee are up for posthumous pardons, since the other two did not live long enough to be convicted [Shepherd was convicted in a first trial, but an appeals court threw out that conviction. He was killed prior to the second trial.]
DeSantis’ impassioned comments about the case and pledge to bring it to the first Cabinet meeting had heartened many of the advocates to believe Friday would present a conclusion to the case. That included the Central Florida Urban League, which put out a statement Thursday applauding DeSantis and the Cabinet in advance of what the league anticipated would be pardons.
“For many years, our organization has fought on behalf of civil rights on many fronts, including the Groveland Four and their clemency, this will hopefully provide closure for their families and turn the page on this dark period in Florida history,” said Dick Batchelor, chairman of the Central Florida Urban League.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat in the Cabinet, came out early in support of pardons, and this week said she wants the pardons considered Friday and would push for them. But pardons require three yes votes, and one of those has to be from the governor, so Fried’s desire will not be fulfilled unless DeSantis wants the decision to happen right away. The other two members, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Attorney General Ashley Moody have expressed strong desires to pursue justice, but also have stopped short of committing to pardons.
Thompson said DeSantis indicated there was still a lot of material to get through, and still a lot to learn before a decision could be made. Nonetheless, she expressed disappointment and concern, noting that many of the family members are quite elderly now, and have waited many decades.
In an interview with Florida Politics Thursday, Moody indicated she was looking forward to the discussion, but she was not prepared to commit to pardons.
“I support addressing it and looking at the background of these cases,” she said. “You know, this has been of great interest to many people because there has been an in-depth review of not only the underlying cases but all of the appellate decisions that followed thereafter, some of the comments that were made even after by Governor [LeRoy] Collins. So, you know, I think it’s timely in the sense that we need to address it. There’s a pending position and it’s agendaed for Friday and that was the prudent thing to do.
Danny McAuliffe contributed to this story.