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'Groveland Four' Families Hoping to Finally Get an Apology from Florida

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“It would be a tremendous burden lifted off our families’ shoulders. It’s a dark cloud that needs to be cleared,” Carole Greenlee, the daughter of a member of the quartet of African-American men who came to be known as the “Groveland Four,” told the Daily Commercial.

She’s hoping the final chapter of Florida’s version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” will be written by the Florida Legislature this spring. But she might have to wait another year, thanks to a legislative dispute over the priority of apologies for admitted miscarriages of justice.

The top Republican in the Florida House has another “grave injustice” at the top of his list.

However, Sen. Gary Farmer (D) said he could feel Carole Greenlee’s pain.

“All four gentlemen are deceased, but their families have had to live with these accusations or black mark on their family name for all this time,” Farmer said when he introduced the resolution to offer an apology to the families of the Groveland Four. “The exoneration is mainly symbolic, but to the families, it’s huge. This is just a small token of what we can do as a state to right that wrong.”

The resolution also called for the admission of “grave injustice” against Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas.

The four men were accused of raping a white teenage girl in 1949. Thomas was killed by a posse. Greenlee, Irvin and Shepherd were arrested and said they were beaten and tortured into confessing even though there was evidence the girl had neither been raped nor even had sex on the day the attack allegedly occurred.

Greenlee was convicted and sentenced to life in prison because he was only 16 when the rape was allegedly committed. Shepherd and Irvin were convicted and sentenced to death.

However, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot Shepherd and Irvin while they were allegedly trying to escape. Shepherd was pronounced dead at the scene. Irvin survived.

The verdict against Greenlee was overturned in 1951.

Irvin’s death sentence was commuted by the governor in 1955. He was paroled in 1968.

The Florida Senate Judiciary Committee approved SCR 920, the upper chamber’s Groveland Four resolution, on March 22. That moved it into position for a full Senate vote.

Groveland and Lake County officials have approved municipal resolutions that apologize to relatives of the Groveland Four. The resolutions included requests that the Florida Legislature follow suit.

“We’re hoping the state will wake up and see the grave injustice and that we have the power to fix it,” former Groveland Mayor Tim Loucks said. “I have good faith that this year might be the year.”

However, the writing of this story’s final chapter could be delayed or even be blocked. Groveland Four apology resolutions have been offered before in the Florida Legislature, only to fail.

The state House has yet to take up its version of the resolution. The House reconvenes on Wednesday.

Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran told the Orlando Sentinel that final legislative action on the Groveland Four might have to wait for a similar action to apologize to the boys who were abused at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys decades ago.

In fact, Corcoran said the Dozier case was his top priority.

U.S. Department of Justice and Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigations in 2011 and 2010, respectively, confirmed much of what Floridians had known of for the 111 years of the school’s existence.

It was allegedly the scene of abuse, rapes and even the murder of students by staff.

Roger Kiser, who was a “student” at the Dozier School from 1959-1960, told Florida investigators “he was spanked with such force that his buttocks were black and blue and bloody” and that his “underwear was embedded into his skin.”

Even though the state report found “no tangible physical evidence” of the allegations of abuse, rape and murder, the school was closed in 2011 after the DOJ report concluded “the State failed to adequately protect youth confined to Dozier and JJOC from harm and threat of harm by staff, other youth, and self-harm. The State’s failure to ensure the adequate implementation of its policies caused unconstitutional conditions of confinement.”

“We know those children were abused and tortured,” Corcoran said. “And the question is, how do you try to find some way to close that door in a healthy way that allows people to move on and recognizes the gross injustice that was done?”

Carole Greenlee said, at this point, that is all the families of the Groveland Four can expect – to be able to move on. But she also wants to clean the slate for future generations.

“For years, your father is locked up in prison growing up and you’re ashamed,” Greenlee said. “At that time, it was a bad thing and, going forward, I don’t want his nieces and nephews left with that same feeling about their family legacy for something that was not even true.”

“I made a promise to myself,” Greenlee said, “that I won’t stop until this is cleared or I’m dead.”