LAKE COUNTY, Fla. — It’s been more than 70 years since the men who the world knows as the Groveland Four were accused of kidnapping and raping a white woman named Norma Padgett Upshaw in Groveland, a rural community in Lake County.
Even today, Groveland is a majority white community, with only about 22% African Americans.
For nearly three years, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has been reviewing details of the case to prepare a report for the 5th Circuit State Attorney’s Office.
Only 9 Investigates obtained a summary of the FDLE investigation into the Groveland Four case.
The review started nearly three years ago and could help determine whether the four Black men should be exonerated. They were accused of raping a white woman in 1949. In 2017, the state apologized and two years later they were posthumously pardoned.
“I am asking for exoneration because it never happened,” said Dr. Beverly Robinson.
The demands for a full exoneration of the Groveland Four have been loud and clear since at least 2017 when the legislature signed off on a formal apology and recommended they be exonerated.
In 2019, the governor agreed to pardon Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee and Ernest Thomas, all of whom had been dead for years.
“He was not there, he was accused, put in jail, tortured for something that he did not do,” said Carol Greenlee, daughter of Charles Greenlee.
The FDLE probe focused on tracking down new leads and previously unreported information about the case handled by the Lake County Sheriff’s Office and Groveland Police. But the report we obtained indicates that most of what they found was already known, including inconsistent accounts, no expert analysis confirming a rape, lack of investigative follow-ups, misrepresented and manufactured facts by the lead law enforcement agency led by Sheriff Willis McCall and no real investigation before the four were arrested.
The only potentially new piece of evidence was a paper written by a former Lake County Community College student in 1996. The student was the niece of the woman who said she was raped and had pleaded with the clemency board not to pardon the group in 2019.
“What would you do and if you had a daughter and a mother and a wife and a sister or a niece and would you give them pardon, no I don’t think you would,” she said. Her niece, writing about racism focused on the Groveland Four.
Unbeknownst to her, the professor was also Sam Shepherd’s cousin, who told the clemency board the portions she remembered about that paper. “The family swore all of them to secrecy that they were to never tell the truth, it never happened Ms. Pageant, family it never happened, you all are liars,” Robinson stated during the public clemency hearing.
FDLE tracked her down more than a year after that testimony, but she didn’t have the paper. And that former student died last August in a Clermont car crash three months before FDLE went to question her about what she wrote.
Her ex-husband insisted the paper wasn’t focused on his late wife’s aunt falsifying the rape.
“I’m hoping that the state attorney will see some of the things in this case, I’m going to put it that way, 70-something years ago,” Robinson told Channel 9 investigative reporter Daralene Jones.
Regardless of whether the state attorney has enough for exoneration, the governor has already publicly stated this: “I don’t think there’s any way you can look at this case and decide the ideals of justice were satisfied, indeed they were perverted time and time again and I think the way this was carried out was a miscarriage of justice.”
The prosecutor reviewed this case at the state attorney’s office said it will take some time and said he will not comment further at this time.
One thing that may stall the process is that FDLE said this week they received new information after they turned over their final report to the state attorney. They would not say whether it is new, previously unknown information. Until then the families wait.