Bryan Gowdy was an unlikely candidate to make history.
He was an unknown lawyer from a small firm when he went before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue on behalf of a black Florida inmate sentenced as a teen to life without parole for burglary charges.
He asked the nine black-robed justices to do something the Supreme Court had never done before: Apply the 8th Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment to something other than the death penalty.
Few gave him much of a chance.
A lawyer in Jacksonville for 10 years, Gowdy had never handled a criminal appeal. He had never argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. And he didn't belong to the network of attorneys, social scientists and advocates who have devoted their lives to the cause of juveniles tried as adults.
But Gowdy, then 39, had two things going for him: confidence in himself and belief in the injustice that sent Terrance Graham to prison for life as a teenager. Graham was arrested at 16 for a restaurant burglary with two other teenagers. Sentenced to probation, he was arrested a second time at 17 during a home invasion with two older men. For violating his probation, the judge sentenced Graham to life without parole.
"This was a really unjust sentence," Gowdy said.
His conviction reminds some of another principled young lawyer — Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird.
"Remember what Bryan did here: he took the extra step that no other attorney did," said Paolo Annino, a Florida State University law professor and advocate of juveniles in prison, who worked with Gowdy on the Graham case. "Even after one court after another ruled that life without parole was constitutional, he would not accept a no.
"Bryan Gowdy is a role model for all young lawyers."
His efforts would not only change the fate of Terrance Graham but alter how the courts view juvenile offenders, their crimes and their potential.
'On the right side'
Seated in the courtroom on Nov. 9, 2009, Jonathan Gowdy watched his older brother make his case for Graham. Bryan and Jonathan, born 14 months apart, had always been competitive. Jonathan finished fourth in his University of Florida law class. Bryan finished first.
As boys, they rivaled each other on the soccer field, in the classroom and on the driveway basketball court of their home in Tampa. Even when Bryan lost, he wouldn't give up.
"One day I beat Bryan multiple times in a row and he got really frustrated that his little brother was beating him," recalled Jonathan, 40, an attorney with the Morrison & Foerster law firm in Washington, D.C., which assisted Bryan in his case. "I wanted to call it a day, but he kept making me play him over and over."
In high school, Bryan Gowdy attended a Catholic school, where he was influenced by the Jesuit's emphasis on community service and the obligation each person has to help others.
"When Bryan thinks he is on the right side of an issue or situation, he will usually stick to his position — almost stubbornly sometimes," Jonathan said.
"I suppose the Jesuit background has helped Bryan see the value of providing service to people in need, like Terrance Graham, and likely played some part in Bryan's decision to take the case on essentially a pro bono basis."
'A worthy cause'
A few rows behind Gowdy in the courtroom sat his law partner John Mills, who had hired him because of his success with a large Jacksonville practice defending corporate giants such as the St. Joe Company, the land developer.
Two months before Gowdy joined the firm, Graham's mother showed up at the square, two-story law office and convinced Mills to take her son's case.
"I told her I have a great new lawyer in Bryan Gowdy. I'm going to have him work this case," said Mills, 40. "The chances were very slim. I told Mary Graham the odds were against us, but this was a worthy cause."
Gowdy was not impressed with the thin file Mills handed him: "It looked pretty hopeless."
But he pursued the appeal much like he shot baskets against his younger brother: refusing to quit, even when he lost. The First District Court of Appeal rejected his argument. The Florida Supreme Court did the same. He appealed its decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. In May 2009, the justices agreed to hear the case of Graham v. Florida.
Florida Solicitor General Scott Makarfelt a sense of relief the moment he found out Bryan Gowdy would be the opposing counsel on Graham. They knew each other well. Both lived in the same Jacksonville neighborhood. Makar saw Gowdy driving around in the same old black Saturn station wagon he had owned since law school. Gowdy would see Makar jog by his house.
"He's one of these people who is going to be straight up, a straight-shooting kind of guy. I knew there wouldn't be any shenanigans, any game playing," said Makar, 51.
Makar was older, more experienced. Appointed Solicitor General in 2007, he already had represented Florida before the U.S. Supreme Court.
To Gowdy, Makar had the age and gray hair that commands respect in the legal profession. Gowdy felt his youthful appearance worked against him. He was tall, a bit gangly and had a habit of mispronouncing names. His shirt sleeves extended beyond the cuffs of his suit coat a few inches too much. When he was dressing for the Supreme Court, he discovered he had pulled on the wrong pants for his suit. His wife made him change.
From his looks, other lawyers might underestimate Gowdy. But not Makar.
"He's very self-effacing and humble," Makar said, "but he has a passion gene in his system."
Gowdy knew he had only a few minutes to make his opening remarks before the questioning from the justices began. When the questions started, it felt just as Makar had described it — you're a ping-pong ball in a room of nine paddles.
But the rapid-fire discourse, the justices interrupting each other, the sudden shifts from one thought to another — it was the stuff Gowdy enjoyed most about being an appellate lawyer.
"It's not about giving a speech," he said. "You should welcome the questions from the justices. The point is to figure out what concerns them about your case and to answer and resolve those concerns in 30 minutes."
Kids vs. adults
On May 17, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, ruled in favor of Terrance Graham. States could no longer sentence anyone under the age of 18 to life without parole for crimes less than murder. As a result, juveniles who had received life sentences for armed robbery, assault, rape and attempted murder had to be resentenced. Of the 128 juveniles serving life sentences in the United States at the time, 77 of them in Florida.
A year later, Gowdy has continued to represent Graham, who is awaiting resentencing.
Before taking the Graham case, Gowdy had never given much thought to juveniles sentenced as adults. He is now a committed advocate for a justice system that recognizes the difference between kids and adults.
" 'Adult time for adult crime' makes a good bumper sticker. But that's bumper-sticker thinking," he said. "The problem with our current system is we make a lifetime judgment on someone when they are 16. We should be making that judgment when they are 35."
Jkunerth@tribune.com or 407-420-5392Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times