LADY LAKE, Florida (Reuters) - The families of the four young black men accused in the questionable 1949 rape claim of a white woman in the then-segregated American South, are asking Florida Governor Rick Scott to re-examine the evidence and clear the mens’ names.
“I just want the record to reflect that Charles Greenlee was not involved, if anything in fact even happened,” said Greenlee’s 62-year-old daughter Carol Crawley who was born four months after her father’s arrest for the rape. “It’s to clear my father’s name because he’s innocent.”
Greenlee, the last surviving member of the ‘Groveland Four’, died in April at the age of 78, his brother Wade Greenlee said.
The call for the state to exonerate the men 63 years later is a result of an FBI document that surfaced in 2012 recounting an interview with the doctor who examined the woman who reported the rape, according to Gary Corsair, author of the book on the case, “Legal Lynching.”
Three of the men were sent to prison for the rape, and the fourth was killed by a posse after trying to flee arrest.
Dr. Geoffrey Binneveld is quoted in the report stating that he found no spermatozoa in a swab of the victim and could not confirm she had been raped, according to a copy of the report.
At a press conference Friday in Lake County, central Florida, Corsair said the prosecutor in the rape trial had the report but refused to show it to a defense lawyer who requested it in 1951.
Corsair, who asked to see the report in the course of research for his book, said the FBI in 2002 sent him a redacted copy with every word blacked out. The un-redacted copy was obtained by Gilbert King, author of a 2012 book on former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall who helped defend the Groveland Four.
Members of the families of Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irving who were at the press event signed a letter to be mailed to Governor Scott. Corsair said relatives of Ernest Thomas, the fourth of the Groveland Four, could not be located.
The governor’s press aide, Lane Wright, told Reuters that Scott was made aware of the case on Thursday.
“We’ve got people looking into it but we want to make sure we gather the facts before we go off and make a decision,” Wright said.
Even more than an apology from the state, Wade Greenlee said he would prefer to hear the truth from the woman, Norma Padgett, who accused his brother.
“It would just mean more to me if she would come forward and say it didn’t happen,” Greenlee said. “I would love to put my arms around her to tell her she has been forgiven.”
Carol Greenlee Crawley said her father was not bitter and did not want to dredge up the case during his lifetime out of concern for the woman’s family.
“He said ‘Understand this person has to carry this for the rest of her life,'” Crawley said.
Padgett lived locally but relatives of the Groveland Four said they did not know if she is still alive.
Questions have been raised about the rape case since the beginning and continue today. Corsair said a request to the local historical society to hold Friday’s press conference on the steps of the courthouse where the trial took place was rebuffed by the society because some members felt the case remained too controversial.
On July 16, 1949, a 17-year-old Padgett, and her husband, claimed she was raped by four black men in the back of a car after their own vehicle broke down.
Greenlee, who had just hitchhiked to Lake County from Gainesville, was arrested after he was spotted by a night watchman filling a bottle with water and found to have a gun in his waistband.
Shepherd and Irving were arrested after Shepherd was found sleeping in a car and claimed he had spent the evening with Irving.
Thomas, who expected to be arrested, fled Lake County but was tracked down by a posse and killed. Mobs burned down homes in the black section of the county.
According to Corsair, a newspaper reporter, Norman Bunin, discredited the case in 1950 by creating a timeline which showed that Greenlee was 19 miles away being questioned by the night-watchman when the rape occurred. Eight witnesses were found by Bunin and others who placed Irving and Shepherd at a nightclub 70 miles away.
Shepherd was shot and killed in 1951 along a dark dirt road while being transported with Irving by Sheriff Willis McCall. McCall claimed the two prisoners, cuffed together, tried to attack him when he let them out of his patrol car to relieve themselves.
Greenlee was paroled in 1960 at age 27. Irving was paroled in 1968 at age 39 and died a year later.
Editing by David Adams