▶ Watch Video: Four Florida men pardoned for racially-charged 1949 rape conviction

A Florida judge has exonerated the “Groveland Four” — four Black men who were accused of attacking and raping a White teen at gunpoint in 1949.

Bill Gladson, the local state attorney, fought for the men’s convictions to be overturned. “We followed the evidence to see where it led us, and it led us to this moment,” Gladson said at a news conference Monday.

When 17-year-old Norma Padgett made the accusation, the Ku Klux Klan torched Black neighborhoods in Groveland and an angry mob killed one of the men, Ernest Thomas. The others, Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd, were beaten into confessing.

After an all-White jury convicted the men, Thurgood Marshall, who was a lawyer for the NAACP at the time, won them a new trial. But the local sheriff shot and killed Shepherd, claiming he tried to escape. Greenlee and Irvin were sentenced to life in prison.

An independent investigation later determined the men were innocent and they were granted pardons by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the state’s clemency board in 2019.

From left: Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, an unidentified man, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee.

State Library and Archives of Florida/AP

Padgett, however, continued to maintain that she did not lie about the incident. “I am not no liar,” she said at a clemency hearing in 2019. “If I had to go to court today I could tell you the same story.”

The families of the exonerated men celebrated the judge’s ruling on Monday. 

“Wow, it’s been a long time coming,” Gerald Threat, Irvin’s nephew, said in a news conference. “This Thanksgiving, we can have an entirely different atmosphere without this hanging over our head.”

Carol Greenlee, the daughter of Charles Greenlee, said, “My father was a caring, loving, compassionate person that did not rape anybody.”

Manuel Bojorquez contrbuted reporting.