A Florida judge has posthumously exonerated four black men wrongly accused of raping a white teenager in 1949.
Known as the Groveland Four, Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Sam Shepherd and Ernest Thomas were accused of abducting and sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl near Groveland, Florida during the Jim Crow era of southern US racial segregation.
However, on Friday, Lake County Circuit Court Judge Heidi Davis set aside the judgments and sentences of Irvin and Greenlee and dismissed the indictments of the other two – who had died before they could be tried.
Days after the accusation was made Thomas was gunned down and shot 400 times by a mob of more than 1,000 men.
The US Supreme Court unanimously overturned the convictions of Shepherd and Irvin in 1951, however, the pair were shot by a Lake County Sheriff – who alleged they were trying to escape – later that year when being transported to a new trial.
Irvin and Greenlee were both jailed and paroled in the 1960s.
A year after his 1968 parole, Irvin was found dead under suspicious circumstances.
Greenlee died in 2012.
Friday’s exoneration brings to an end a saga that has shadowed their families for decades.
Florida state attorney Bill Gladson said newly uncovered evidence called into question whether any rape was committed and said “the sheriff, the judge, and the prosecutor all but ensured guilty verdicts in this case”.
All four men had been officially and posthumously pardoned in 2019 – opposed by the woman who had accused them of rape, who said she was not a liar.
However, Mr Gladson had sought a full exoneration, writing in his motion: “A pardon carries an imputation of guilt.”
He added: “These four men were deprived of the fundamental due process rights that are guaranteed to all Americans.
“These officials, disguised as keepers of the peace and masquerading as ministers of justice, disregarded their oaths and set in motion a series of events that forever destroyed these men, their families, and a community.
“I have not witnessed a more complete breakdown of the criminal justice system, nor do I expect I ever will again.”
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