A Florida judge on Monday officially exonerated four young black men — known as the Groveland Four — who were falsely accused of raping a white woman over 70 years ago.
Administrative Judge Heidi Davis dismissed the indictments of Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd, who were shot and killed by law enforcement officers, and cleared the convictions and sentences of Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin.
The four men, who were aged 16 to 26 at the time, were accused of raping a white woman in the small central Florida town of Groveland in 1949 during the Jim Crow era.
“We followed the evidence to see where it led us and it led us to this moment,” said state attorney Bill Gladson following a hearing that was held in the same courthouse where the original trials were seven decades ago.
Family members of the accused attended the moving hearing on Monday, which brought some to tears. Many hope the exoneration will open opportunities for other racially motivated convictions to be overturned.
“We are blessed. I hope that this is a start because a lot of people didn’t get this opportunity. A lot of families didn’t get this opportunity. Maybe they will,” said Aaron Newson, Thomas’ nephew, through tears.. “This country needs to come together.”
Thomas was killed by a mob that shot him more than 400 times shortly after he was accused of rape. The local sheriff, Willis McCall, fatally shot Shepherd and wounded Irvin in 1951 as he drove them to a second trial after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their original convictions, saying no evidence had been presented. The sheriff claimed the men tried to escape, which Irvin denied.
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SOURCE: New York Post, Patrick Reilly