BYU Lawreads: "Devil in the Grove" Discussion with Author Gilbert King

November 11, 2017

This semester, BYU Law initiated a Book of the Semester program titled “BYU Lawreads.” "We envision this project as an opportunity for our students and other members of our community to engage with the law on an emotional level. Our primary goal is to motivate deeper reflection on the role of law in human affairs,” explained Dean Smith. Turning to literature provides an avenue to better understand the law’s influence on the human experience. For its inaugural book, the BYU Law community read Gilbert King’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning historical work Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. On November 17, Gilbert King joined the Law School via videoconference to present his work and join the Lawreads panel discussion.


Mr. King opened by reflecting on the brutality and terrorism that existed in the Jim Crow South.  It was in this harsh environment that Thurgood Marshall conducted some of his greatest work. Rather than being content to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle at his home in New York, Marshall journeyed straight into the heart of the South to combat racism and its accompanying evils. Jack Greenberg, one of the lawyers who worked with Marshall on the Groveland case, described the situation this way: “Combat was frightening, but I was never more scared than when I was in Lake County Florida [for the Groveland trial]. The Klan was circling outside with hoods and burning torches. I put the furniture up against the door.  I cannot imagine what local people like Harry Moore had to live through in this reign of terror.”

In the Groveland case, four young black men were accused of raping a white woman in Lake County, Florida. One of the accused, Earnest Thomas, was hunted and killed by a posse. The other three accused were tortured, resulting in the forced confessions of Charles Greenlee and Samuel Shepherd. Charles Irwin refused to confess falsely. The prosecutor handpicked the jury and then had the judge excuse the only black juror, resulting in an all-white jury. Unjust, partial treatment continued throughout the trial, which ended with guilty verdicts against all three accused. Greenlee received a life sentence as opposed to the death penalty due to his youth. Anything less than the death penalty was how a lawyer knew that the jury believed the defendant was innocent.

Mr. King explained that Marshall knew he was not going to win in the trial, which was a travesty of justice. Instead, Marshall sought to preserve issues for appeal because he saw the Supreme Court as the one even playing field he could rely upon. Marshall argued to the Supreme Court that the method of jury selection was unconstitutional in the Groveland case. The Court agreed. In writing his decision, Supreme Court Justice Jackson wrote, “The case presents one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to American justice.”


Thurgood Marshall and the lawyers working with him were stalwart, early-movers in the fight for civil rights. There were no marches or protests in those early days, only court cases. “It was the lawyers,” Mr. King stated, “who stood out in the pre-civil rights movement.” Justice for the Groveland Boys was never truly achieved. The local sheriff,  Willis MCCall, shot Shepherd and Irvin multiple times while transferring them for retrial, claiming they tried to escape. Shepherd died. Irvin played dead and survived to tell his version of events–that they were shot point-blank and were not escaping. The evidence supported Irvin’s story, but no action was ever taken against MCCall. Irvin was re-convicted. It was not until April 2017 that the State of Florida issued an apology and posthumously exonerated the Groveland Boys.

In the panel discussion that followed Mr. King’s comments, the idea that lawyers can move society was reiterated. Adam Bouka, a third-year law student, encouraged students to be empowered by Marshall’s sense of duty. He encouraged fellow students to use their knowledge to make the Constitution work for everyone. Professor Steele’s biggest takeaway from “Devil in the Grove” concerned Marshall’s character. “He was impeccable in the mastery of his craft and lawyer skills,” she said. When his own life was at risk, “He maintained absolute professionalism.” Such resiliency should inspire students and attorneys to become masters of the law and use their skills to promote a fairer justice system. In her comments, Dean Hurt stressed the recency of this history and the way it impacts society today. She asked students to reflect on whether they, like Marshall, are willing to leave a place or situation of safety to move the law and society in the direction of justice.


BYU Lawreads will continue next semester with Graham Moore’s “The Last Days of Night.”