ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s incoming agriculture commissioner said Monday that she wants to secure a formal pardon for four young African-American men who were wrongly accused of raping a white woman in what is considered one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Jim Crow-era Florida.
Nikki Fried said she would bring up the Groveland Four’s case at the first Florida Cabinet meeting she attends and try to expedite a review that could lead to their posthumous pardon at a clemency board hearing. As agriculture secretary, Fried is one of four members on the state’s clemency board, which also includes the governor, attorney general and chief financial officer.
The four men, Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, were wrongly accused of raping a white woman in the central Florida town of Groveland in 1949. During their ordeal, Thomas was shot and killed by a posse, Shepherd was fatally shot by the local sheriff, Irvin was shot and wounded by the sheriff and a deputy, and Greenlee was wrongly imprisoned. Future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, then with the NAACP, represented Irvin during a second trial.
Both Greenlee and Irvin were eventually paroled after serving prison sentences.
The Groveland Four’s story was recounted in Gilbert King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Devil in the Grove.”
The Florida Legislature last year formally apologized and asked Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet to posthumously pardon the four men. Neither Scott nor the other three members of the board have done so.
Fried, who will become a member of the Florida Cabinet after she is sworn in next month, said in a statement that she hopes to convince her colleagues that a pardon is the right thing to do. Fried is a Democrat and the Cabinet’s two other members, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and incoming-Attorney General Ashley Moody, are Republicans.
“The families have suffered, the legislature has spoken, and history shows that this was an undeniable injustice — racially motivated and a stain on the history of our state,” Fried said. “We must look to correct this grave injustice and denounce the abuses of the past. ”