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Josh Venkataraman petitioned for pardons for the "Groveland Four."
Josh Venkataraman petitioned for pardons for the "Groveland Four."
Courtesy of Josh Venkataraman

"Groveland Four" Posthumous Pardons Expected at First Florida Cabinet Meeting of 2019

Four black men were falsely accused of raping a white woman in Groveland, Florida and then hunted down. One had his body riddled with around 400 bullets while fleeing for his life from a mob of more than 1,000 men. Another was killed in cold blood by a sheriff with a racist agenda while en route to his Supreme Court-ordered retrial. The third — shot by the same officer — survived only by playing dead. He and the last of the men were mercilessly tortured, convicted and locked up for 33 years before their sentence ran its course. 

This is the infamous story of the "Groveland Four": Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas; four men whose lives were stolen in segregated Florida 70 years ago. Over the past decades, a documentary, Pulitzer Prize-winning book, and legions of media coverage have chronicled the racial injustice and illegitimate persecution the men underwent when 17-year-old Norma Padgett accused them all of rape.

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Public support to get the men's names cleared by the state has gained momentum in recent years. After elected officials including Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis, Senator Marco Rubio, and incoming agriculture commissioner, Democrat Nikki Fried, all voiced support for a pardon, advocates expect a breakthrough in the coming days.

Shortly after 9 a.m. on Friday, January 11, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency is scheduled to discuss the requested pardons following the first meeting of Florida's Cabinet this year. In an email to Josh Venkataraman, the 24-year-old Broward native responsible for a 2015 petition that stirred national attention for the case, the Coordinator Office of Executive Clemency confirmed that the "Groveland Four" request is on the official agenda. Up for a vote are the state pardons of Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin, as they were the only two of the four men accused who survived long enough to be convicted.

To Venkataraman, who is also one of the forces behind the application for Greenlee and Irvin's pardons, the outcome of the meeting is almost certain — so certain in fact, that the now-NYC resident is flying down to Tallahassee to attend the meeting in-person. “[State] Senator Gary Farmer — who I worked with on this — called me on Friday and said, ‘It's going to be on the agenda and everyone is going to vote yes, so you should come,'" says Venkataraman.

It’s a moment of buzzing anticipation for those, like Venkataraman, who have been closely invested in pursuing justice in the 1949 case. He credits much of the expected victory to Carol Greenlee, the 68-year-old daughter of Charles Greenlee, who was the final "Groveland Four" survivor to pass away in 2012. "It's not so much that I’ve been working on this thing for almost four years now and now I’m getting to see it in fruition," he says. "That's a great feeling, but for me, it's about these families. Carol — her whole life has been tainted by this. Henrietta Irvin was 15 when this happened; she still talks about this."

The older sister to Walter Irvin, Henrietta has been outspoken about her need for the state of Florida to declare her brother innocent. Both she and Carol have been adamant about the government's responsibility to correct the record. Their voices were amplified by Venkataraman's petition (which amassed 9,743 signatures) and a flicker of interest from state officials that were moved by the story first reported by nationally syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts.

Gilbert King — author of Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America — Commissioner Adam Putnam, attorney Chris Hand, State Senator Geraldine Thompson and the communications team at Edelman Orlando are among the chief advocates who have joined Venkataram in supporting a pardon. King, the amateur historian turned Pulitzer Prize winner for his research and presentation of the case, told New Times in an email, "For me, these exonerations are merely a relief. Officially, they will set the record straight on some grave injustices in the past. I’m just grateful that the families of the young men, in this case, have finally received an official apology, and the State of Florida is so close to clearing their names,"

It's taken almost four years to officiate pardons for Greenlee and Irvin. When the Florida House voted to formally apologize for the prosecution and persecution of Greenlee, Irvin, Shepherd and Thomas in 2017, the expectation was that the clemency review by Rick Scott and his administration would be expedited. But the delays put in place since have not gone unnoticed by members of the press and those advocating for this official exoneration.

"Right after the resolution was passed, we felt this was it, we did it. And then, it wasn't happening... I think I immediately got a sense of what this was going to look like when the initial response from the governor’s office was that it had to go through a formal process. To be frank, I didn't think it would happen with the current cabinet," says Venkataraman. 

He was right, as the meeting Friday will be held by Florida's newly-elected Cabinet.

With a long-delayed pardon now appearing imminent, Venkataraman is looking back on the beginning of this journey for justice.

He was a 21-year-old University of Florida student at the time, who had read a copy of King's book as a requirement in his coursework. Driving from his hometown of Fort Lauderdale back to school, he spotted a sign for "Groveland" on the side of the road. The historical implications still attached to the location came alive before his very eyes. "It became a real place with real people, and what happened there took place not that long ago," he says. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author has since worked closely with the young activist and asserts that inspiration is a two-way street. "I’m so inspired by Josh. Only a few years ago, he took this effort to another level with his passion and drive, and he reaffirms my belief that young people like him are going to make the world a better place," King says.

The gravity of King's story hit the college student hard, according to his mom, Fort Lauderdale resident and League of Women Voters Broward activist Barbara Markley. "When he first saw the sign, he called me from the road and just was so upset, saying how seeing it 'really makes it real,' and 'I can't believe this happened and I really want to do something to help,'" she remembers. Markley then aided her son in tracking down Carol Greenlee, King, and setting the wheels of justice in motion.

Sometime after launching the online petition, the two traveled together to meet with 87-year-old Henrietta Irvin, who spoke candidly about Groveland's sordid past. Henrietta told them something that stayed with Markley long after their conversation was over: "'There's so much blood in those orange groves you wouldn't believe it,' she said. 'I just want to live long enough to clear his name.'"

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