Climbing out of a hole is never easy. Florida’s 'Groveland Four' get an unexpected break 70 years later

CNN EXCLUSIVE: Florida's 'Groveland Four' exonerated more than 70 years after being accused of raping White girl

CNN Exclusive: Florida's 'Groveland Four' exonerated more than 70 years after being accused of raping White girl

Federal officials Monday ended an era that spanned more than seven decades with the exoneration of four men who were wrongly imprisoned for raping a White girl in 1949 and then removed from their families.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Florida Parole Commission has granted the men – James E. Rackley, Ernest Thomas, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd – gubernatorial pardons and relief from Florida’s antiquated death penalty laws.

They were exonerated by DNA testing in 2010 and 2014.

Sessions called their exoneration “a noteworthy turn in their rightful justice” and lauded Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for honoring their plight, particularly Shepherd, a wheelchair-bound man. The governor said his reasons for clemency included three prison fires committed by arsonist prisoners, who he said changed the criminal justice system, and Shepherd’s terrible condition.

Sessions also cited evidence of racial prejudice in the case, noting a non-White investigator found his testimony was not supported by witnesses, and the not-guilty verdict was upheld by appeals courts.

“But the cruelest lesson may be the loss of innocence by a wrongly convicted person,” Sessions said. “It is often the youth who have less memory of their past.”

After several false leads that emerged during the case, former prosecutor Edward Hyde later testified at the federal trial that the prosecution’s case was built on bad facts and poor recollections of key witnesses, the department said.

He later withdrew the charges, and his office had to pay the costs of the defense. He denied any wrongdoing in his early statements about the case, but also said he regretted that the real perpetrator went not to prison for his crimes but to free residential care facilities, CNN affiliate WKMG in Orlando reported.

In 2014, an investigative reporter from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune uncovered discrepancies in federal trial testimony of the lead investigator.

Carl Holmes told CNN over the phone Monday that his research “opened up more eyes for other journalists and others” who helped expose what he called an injustice. He said he thinks what is happening to the four men now is “a miracle.”

The June 1, 1949, rape led to charges against the four men, who were arrested and tried as adults in Volusia County. Witnesses in both trials testified they saw four young Black men raping the 14-year-old White girl, who died of natural causes days later at a hospital.

Federal law allowed the government to investigate whether a man was wrongfully convicted, and after the charges were dropped and after the criminal convictions were vacated, the Department of Justice pressed for the Grand Jury investigation to be reopened and investigated for civil rights violations, CNN reported. The Florida Parole Commission then considered clemency after the federal government requested the investigation and the results were reopened.

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