Florida’s Constitutional Convention in 1865 included a provision into the state’s “Black Codes” that permitted “Negroes to testify in criminal proceedings when a member of their race was involved, but an all-white jury would determine the witnesses’ credibility.”
Black people have historically been subjected to the unequal application and enforcement of the law. The immediate effect of this policy was to strip Black defendants of their rights to be judged by a jury of their peers. At a time when Black bodies were often perceived as inferior and violent, being judged only by those who see you as less than equal led to significant disparities in sentencing and punishment. Although Congress outlawed race-based discrimination in jury selection in 1975, Florida’s correctional and judicial system still displayed remnants of racist policies that were crafted to uphold white power and credibility: for example, the 1949 trial of three innocent Black men who were convicted by an-all white, all-male jury for the kidnapping and raping of a white woman. Known as the “Groveland Four,” Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd, and Walter Irvin were accused of kidnapping and raping a 17-year-old white woman. Thomas was found asleep under a tree and shot 400 times by a white mob; two days later, a judge ruled his death as justifiable homicide. The other three accused were arrested and faced an-all white jury that handed the death penalty to Shepherd and Irvin, while Greenlee received life in prison since he was 16 years old.