As lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week advanced a criminal justice bill through the Senate, the state of Florida was considering its own move to grant posthumous clemency to the Groveland Four, four black men who were wrongfully accused of raping a white woman in the late 1940s.
In July 1949, Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas were accused of raping Norma Padgett, a 17-year-old white girl whose car broke down one night in the middle of rural Florida.
Despite little evidence to support prosecutors’ theories, an all-white jury convicted the four, who had been threatened with death and beaten by police into admitting to the crime. Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison. Shepherd and Irvin were given the death penalty, but while being transported from the county jail for retrial, the sheriff shot them, killing Shepherd. Irvin managed to survive by playing dead. Thomas was murdered before charges were even filed.
“As a state, we’re truly sorry,” state Rep. Chris Sprowls (R) said to the men’s surviving families last year, more than 60 years after the trial.
Gov. Rick Scott and the Clemency Board were asked last year by the Florida legislature to pardon the men, but neither moved on the issue. Now, incoming Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has vowed to pick up where they left off when she takes office in 2019.
“The families have suffered, the legislature has spoken, and history shows that this was an undeniable injustice — racially motivated and a stain on the history of our state. We must look to correct this grave injustice and denounce the abuses of the past,” Fried said in a statement.
A decision is not expected before January, so Fried hopes to force a vote during her first cabinet meeting. Optimistic as that sounds, such a vote would still not guarantee clemency: both the governor and at least two members of the Clemency Board would need to sign off on it before any concrete moves are made.
Others have this on their mind as well.
“It’s going to be one of the first things I look at when we get to work,” Attorney General-elect Ashley Moody told Florida Politics. “It’s something I’m very interested in.”
Retroactive justice is better than no justice at all. But others are taking more proactive measures to ensure injustices never occur in the first place.
In 2010, 16-year-old Kalief Browder was accused of a robbery he did not commit and was held in Rikers while awaiting trial — a period of nearly one thousand days. Of those nearly three years, two were spent in solitary confinement.
During his time in prison, Browder endured beatings, survived multiple suicide attempts, and was abused by corrections officers. He was eventually released in May 2013, after a judge determined his case would soon be dismissed because his accuser had left the country and would not provide testimony.
Browder had difficulty adjusting to life back home, and attempted suicide multiple times. On June 6, 2015, two years after his release, he died from suicide after hanging himself at his mother’s home.
Browder’s case was laden with instances of injustice, including the fact that he was initially sent to Rikers before formal charges, and that he was left in solitary confinement for so long, which many believe forever altered his mental state. And yet his case was different from the Groveland Four, specifically in the way the public responded to it, and the way officials worked to somewhat right the wrongs.
In the immediate aftermath of his death, protesters gathered to rally in his honor, holding several demonstrations in the months that followed to demand change. Following widespread backlash, members of the House of Representatives took up legislation that aimed to reform juvenile incarceration policies and give young people accused of a crime a chance at clearing their name. That summer, President Obama also signed an executive order banning solitary confinement for anyone under the age of 21 being held in federal prison. The state of New York had outlawed solitary confinement for anyone under the age of 21 in January that year.
And in March 2017, seven years after Browder was first locked up at Rikers, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would finally close the prison once and for all, though he said the process would likely take time.
“This is a very serious, sober, forever decision,” de Blasio said in a statement. In a separate Facebook post announcing the move, he added, “The mass incarceration era did not begin in New York City but it’s going to end here.”
The criminal justice reform bill passed by the Senate this week and being re-considered by the House, known as the First Step Act, would similarly implement historic change at a federal level. Though imperfect, the bill would, as Vox notes, reduce excessive prison sentences at the federal level by retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, reduce mandatory minimum sentences, increase the amount of “good time credits” inmate can earn behind bars, and allow for “earned time credits.”
Though some are still skeptical of its impact — it will likely only to apply to a few thousand people— the bill has nonetheless garnered bipartisan support and is the first baby step in what could be a monumental and ongoing shift forward in the fight to reform the U.S. criminal justice system.