Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, One of the pardoned men, Walter Irvin, speaks to his lawyers during his retrial in 1952

Four black men who were wrongly accused of raping a white teenager in the US have been cleared of the charge more than 70 years later.

They were accused of abducting and raping the girl in the central Florida town of Groveland in 1949.

Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas – known as the Groveland Four – were pardoned by the state of Florida in January 2019.

None of the accused men lived to see themselves exonerated.

They were aged between 16 and 26 at the time.

Thomas was hunted down by a posse of more than 1,000 men shortly after the alleged incident and was shot hundreds of times.

The three others were beaten in custody, before being convicted by all-white juries. Samuel Shepherd was later shot and killed by a sheriff while travelling to a retrial.

Irvin narrowly escaped execution in 1954 and his sentence was commuted to life with parole. One year after he was paroled, in 1969, he died.

Greenlee, also sentenced to life, was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012.

A judge in Florida dismissed the indictments of Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd, and set aside the convictions and sentences of Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin.

Their families were emotional upon learning of the news, saying it might spark a re-examination of other similar convictions.

"We are blessed. I hope that this is a start because lot of people didn't get this opportunity. A lot of families didn't get this opportunity. Maybe they will," said Aaron Newson, Thomas' nephew, who broke into tears as he spoke. "This country needs to come together."

This video can not be played

To play this video you need to enable JavaScript in your browser.Media caption, African Americans in New Orleans on the state of race relations (2018 report)

Carol Greenlee, the daughter of Charles Greenlee – who was 16 at the time and the youngest of the suspects – cried and fell into the arms of those next to her when she heard the decision.

"If you know something is right, stand up for it," she said later. "Be persistent."

The local state attorney, Republican Bill Gladson, initiated the move last month to have the men officially exonerated.

"We followed the evidence to see where it led us and it led us to this moment," he said after the hearing, which took place in the same courthouse where the original trials were held.

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Three of the men were convicted by all-white juries

In 2017, Florida's state government issued a "heartfelt apology" to the families of the four men and recommended their posthumous pardons.

The men's story was the subject of the book Devil in the Grove, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013.