State Archives of Florida: Series S49, Box 2446, Case No. 25436
Case file for Groveland victim Walter Lee Irvin's lawsuit against L.F. Chapman, superintendent of Florida State Prison.
On July 16, 1949, Norma Padgett, a 17-year-old white woman from Lake County, Florida, accused four black men of raping her and assaulting her husband after their car stalled on a rural road near the Groveland community. Three of the men—Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin and Charles Greenlee—were quickly apprehended. The fourth suspect, Ernest Thomas, fled the area but was later shot and killed by a sheriff’s posse nearly 200 miles away in Madison County. A Lake County jury found Shepherd, Irvin and Greenlee guilty of rape. Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death; Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison, likely because of his age. Legal counsel from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) appealed the convictions of Irvin and Shepherd up to the United States Supreme Court, which overturned both convictions in 1950. Lake County officials were eager to retry the case, and in November 1951 Sheriff Willis Virgil McCall traveled to the Florida State Prison at Raiford to pick up Irvin and Shepherd. En route back to Lake County, McCall shot both men. Shepherd died of his wounds, but Irvin survived. Sheriff McCall claimed the two men had attacked him, despite the fact that they were handcuffed together in the backseat of the car. Irvin testified that Sheriff McCall had forced the two men from the car and then shot them both. Irvin was tried once again for rape and again found guilty. The United States Supreme Court declined to rehear the case in 1954, but stayed Irvin’s execution just days before it was to take place. Governor LeRoy Collins examined the case and decided to commute Irvin’s sentence to life imprisonment, asserting that his guilt had not been established “in an absolute and conclusive manner.” Greenlee was eventually released from prison on parole in 1960; Irvin was paroled in 1968. In 2017, the Florida Legislature passed a resolution officially apologizing for the handling of this case and calling for the four men to be pardoned. In 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet, sitting as the State Board of Executive Clemency, posthumously pardoned all four of the men originally accused in the case, with DeSantis calling their experiences with the judicial system a “miscarriage of justice.”
Citation: 75 So. 2d 591