Florida House addresses ‘injustice’ to 4 black men in Groveland case


Six decades later, Carol Greenlee can still remember visiting her father when she was a young girl.

“I’m the child that went to the prison one Sunday with my mother, and my daddy kissed me on the head and said, ‘Don’t bring her back no more. It’s too hard,’ ” Greenlee, now 67, said Tuesday. “And I didn’t see him no more until I was 12 years old.”

RELATED: Complete Florida Legislature coverage

It was not until she was 40 that the younger Greenlee would work up the courage to ask her father what happened months before she was born that put him behind bars.

Charles Greenlee was one of four black men accused of raping a white woman near Groveland in 1949, one of two men to survive manhunts and discredited trials that followed, and the only one to live long after his time in prison had ended.

On Tuesday, the Florida House voted to formally apologize for the prosecution and persecution of the “Groveland Four” — Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas. Their story, long neglected, is now a step away from being formally recognized by the Legislature. The Senate is expected to adopt the apology soon.

“This is a glorious day,” Carol Greenlee said Tuesday, struggling for composure as she spoke with lawmakers moments before the vote. “And still today, the tears are hard to hold back. But today, the tears are tears of joy. And I want to thank all of you, all of you, for releasing my family from prison.”

She was joined at an event in the Capitol by the legislation’s sponsors, other family members of the victims, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and authors and petition writers who helped make the apology possible.

The legislation would also ask Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet to quickly consider posthumous pardons for the men.

“Justice was delayed, but it was never denied,” said Carol Greenlee’s brother, Thomas, who was born 15 years after the alleged rape. “It was bound to come.”

The incident began in 1949, when a 17-year-old woman and her husband claimed that the four men raped her near Groveland in Lake County. Three of the men were tortured until two confessed to the crime.

Thomas, who initially escaped, was killed in Madison County after a manhunt. The other three men were convicted, with Greenlee receiving a life sentence and Irvin and Shepherd condemned to death.

An appeal of Irvin and Shepherd’s convictions, spearheaded by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, prompted the high court to overturn the verdict in 1951. Irvin and Shepherd were shot several months later, purportedly in self-defense, by Sheriff Willis McCall and a deputy. Shepherd was killed.

After Irvin was convicted and sentenced to death again, Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted his sentence. Irvin was paroled in 1968 and died two years later. Greenlee, who was paroled in 1962, died in 2012.

Even those who sponsored the apology acknowledged that it could only go so far.

“The memories can’t be erased, the pain they’ve endured can’t be fixed, but today we have an opportunity to provide closure to these families in the form of an apology,” said Rep. Bobby DuBose, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who sponsored the House proposal (HCR 631).

Gilbert King — whose book about the case, “Devil in the Grove,” won the Pulitzer Prize — said the apology “marks a willingness to recognize and confront a grave injustice.”

“Sadly, for the families of the Groveland boys, this bill cannot alter the tragic course of history,” King said. “But it does show how we as Americans can respond to our past, to acknowledge a shameful part of our history and to confront it rather than sweeping it under the rug and moving on without conversation.”

For Carol Greenlee, the apology is still profound. She said that family members can be proud of their name, not worrying about the shame that came with the conviction — however tainted it was.

“Today, I feel free,” she said. “I feel like I can talk about it.”



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Politics

Florida governor, GOP lawmakers weigh options after mass shooting
Florida governor, GOP lawmakers weigh options after mass shooting

A second gun-related bill has been postponed in the Florida Senate in the wake of last week’s mass shooting at a Parkland high school, as legislative leaders craft a multi-pronged response to the massacre and Gov. Rick Scott plans a series of workshops about school safety and ways to keep guns away from people struggling with mental illnesses...
Gun control could become key issue in Florida in November
Gun control could become key issue in Florida in November

An aversion to gun-rights restrictions has been a bedrock of Republican campaigns in Florida — a testing ground for model NRA-backed legislation — for years. But a 19-year-old killer, armed with a semi-automatic rifle he purchased legally and used to fatally gun down 14 students and three faculty members at a Broward County high school...
Education issues key to end of session for Florida Legislature
Education issues key to end of session for Florida Legislature

Florida lawmakers will use the last three weeks of the 2018 session to decide the fate of a number of major education bills that address everything from school bullying to teachers to university tuition. The decisions will begin unfolding Tuesday when the Senate Education Committee takes up a nearly 200-page bill (HB 7055) that is important to House...
Trump fumes about Russia investigation as nation mourns
Trump fumes about Russia investigation as nation mourns

As the nation mourned, President Donald Trump kept largely silent about the Florida school shooting victims and the escalating gun control debate, instead raging at the FBI for what he perceived to be a fixation on the Russia investigation at the cost of failing to deter the attack. From the privacy of Mar-a-Lago, Trump vented about the investigation...
Why Parkland students have emerged as a powerful political voice
Why Parkland students have emerged as a powerful political voice

The boldest voices to emerge in the wake of last week's mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. have been unexpected ones. Surviving students at the school quickly spoke out on social media and to news cameras both about the incident and, more broadly, about political leadership which they saw as having let them...
More Stories