Four African-American men, accused of raping a white woman decades ago in Lake County, may be cleared of their crime.
On Tuesday, Groveland Mayor Tim Loucks will present a proclamation in their favor, seeking a posthumous formal apology for the men. Groveland leaders and families of the men have been pushing for exoneration for years.
“It’s in the past," said Eddie Lee Irvin Jr., nephew of one of the men, Walter Irvin. "I try not to relive it. I try to move forward.”
For years, Irvin’s family and Vivian Shepherd’s family have been burdened by the past. Their uncles, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd, served together in WWII. But back in Lake County, everything came crashing down.
“It’s just time for somebody to take responsibility," he said Monday.
In July 1949, a white couple's truck broke down and two black men stopped to help them out. But then the story took a twist. Norma Padgett, 17, said she was abducted by four men and raped. Those men became known as the Groveland Four.
“For years, it’s been lingering over the Greenlees, the Shepherds, Thomas and Irvin families," said Irvin.
Ernest Thomas fled Lake County after being accused of the crime. His body was found, riddled with bullets, days later. The remaining three men went to trial.
In the land of citrus groves in a racially-divided time, the case was funneled through an all-white jury. Charles Greenlee, 16 years old at the time of the alleged assault, was sentenced to life in prison; the other two men were sentenced to death. Yet, for years, documents have proven the trial a farce, leading many to speculate that the men were falsely accused.
Gilbert King wrote a book, “Devil in the Grove," on the case and said he too wants justice for the families of the Groveland Four.
“Some of the brutality you saw in Lake County was worse than anywhere else in the country," said King, speaking of the mistreatment of the defendants. “I do feel that this is a grave injustice that’s been committed, and there’s an opportunity for the courts and the state to do the right thing and correct this injustice."
As the case garnered national attention, with the U.S. Supreme Court's overturn of the convictions, two of the men were set for a re-trial in Lake County. But the transport turned into a shooting scene, as Sheriff Willis McCall claimed Shepherd and Irvin attacked him, forcing him to draw his weapon. Shepherd was fatally shot; Irvin was wounded. Thurgood Marshall soon took on the case, but was unsuccessful in proving Irvin's innocence.
“They’ve had to grow up in Lake County under this false narrative," said King.
At the time of the incident, Jim Crow Laws ruled the south, and King said the local sheriff took the law into his own hands.
“This is the time that this needs to be spoken out and something needs to be done about it," said Shepherd, the niece of Samuel Shepherd.
For Shepherd and Irvin's nieces and nephews, they hope that changing the narrative and clearing the names of their uncles will bring some sense of closure.
“It will let people know that justice can be done," Shepherd said.