By Bernie Woodall
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Reuters) - Florida's Senate on Thursday apologized to the families of four black men wrongly accused of raping a white teenager nearly 70 years ago, and lawmakers called on the state's governor to issue full pardons.
One of the men known as the "Groveland Four," Ernest Thomas, was hunted down by a posse of over 1,000 men and killed as he was shot 400 times, days after the men were accused of abducting and sexually assaulting the 17-year-old girl in 1949 near Groveland, Florida.
The three others were beaten in custody and convicted. Of those, one was shot dead on the way to a retrial. None are alive today.
Renewed interest in the Groveland Four was sparked by the book, “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America" by Gilbert King that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013.
The Florida Senate offered a "heartfelt apology to these victims of racial hatred" in the resolution that passed the chamber unanimously. It asked Republican Governor Rick Scott to issue posthumous pardons.
The Florida House of Representatives approved an identical resolution last week. Scott's office did not respond to requests for comment.
“Our recognition of these dark times show(s) that we will always be vigilant against racism, against hatred," Senator Gary Farmer, a white Democrat who introduced the Senate measure, said.
Evidence that would have exonerated Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd at their trials was withheld and their alibis ignored, Farmer said.
Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death. Greenlee, who was only 16 at the time, received a life sentence.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1951 unanimously overturned the convictions of Shepherd and Irvin, who were defended by National Association for the Advancement of Colored People attorney Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court justice.
That same year, Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot the two men as he transported them to a pretrial hearing, claiming they were trying to escape.
Shepherd died, and Irvin survived. Irvin, who was retried and convicted again, was paroled in 1968 and found dead a year later under suspicious circumstances, Farmer said.
Greenlee, paroled in the early 1960s, died in 2012.
Last week, his daughter, Carol Greenlee, told reporters after the House vote that her family was at last relieved of "the dark cloud, the shame and the stigma."
"Today," she said, "I feel free."
(Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Andrew Hay)