Bryan Gowdy Never Says ‘Never’

A Jacksonville lawyer takes on the state of Florida—and wins

Published in 2011 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2011

There are two things Bryan Gowdy never gives up on: a case and a child. When the two intersect, he really goes to work.

“A life-without-parole sentence gives up on a kid,” he says. “No matter how bad a kid may look now, how bad his conduct is—we all know that, with time, people mature and change and can turn their lives around. And to say that someone is forever incorrigible based on adolescent conduct contradicts everything we know about kids—both scientifically and under our common sense.”

It’s precisely the argument he made before the U.S. Supreme Court in the fall of 2009.

In the landmark Graham v. Florida, Gowdy asserted for 30 minutes—interrupted about 65 times by justices—that life in prison without any possibility of release is cruel and unusual, and thus unconstitutional, when imposed on juveniles who committed crimes not involving murder.

His client, Terrance Graham, was serving life for armed burglary and a subsequent probation violation, both committed while a minor. At the time, the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” was applied to juvenile offenders only if sentenced to death. Gowdy took the case pro bono on appeal after it lost in the trial court, and then—not being one to back down easily—battled the state at every step until the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear it.

“We were helped by amicus briefs from the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and many other scientists and mental health professionals,” notes Gowdy, 41, of Creed & Gowdy in Jacksonville, who argued the case after only eight years in private practice. Fourteen amicus briefs were filed on behalf of his side. At least a hundred lawyers were involved in the case. In May of 2010, the high court agreed with Gowdy.

“That day that the decision came out was definitely as high a cloud as you can be on as a lawyer,” recalls Gowdy. “The court’s decision says … that not only can you not lock up kids for life with no possibility of release, but you have to give them a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate reform [and to] re-enter into society. And that, to me, is the real impact of the decision.”

The result was sweeping: 37 states and the federal government were required to change their sentencing practices; the rest are barred from imposing it. And 129 lifers who committed nonhomicide crimes as juveniles will be resentenced.

At press time, Graham was waiting for his resentencing. Gowdy, who rarely works in trial court, is staying on the case to argue the hearing. “I want it to be a model for how resentencing should happen,” he says.

After Graham, the Juvenile Life Without Parole Defense Resource Center was created at Barry University, funded partly by The Florida Bar Foundation. It assists the juveniles who now need to be resentenced. Gowdy is an adviser to the center.

Gowdy’s work on the Graham case—he has put in more than 1,000 pro bono hours on the case—has drawn accolades, even leading a professor at Florida State University College of Law to compare Gowdy to Atticus Finch. Gowdy laughs. “Atticus Finch is sort of like the Superman of lawyers,” he says. “Nobody compares himself to Atticus Finch.”

But since the case began, Gowdy has won three awards for his pro bono efforts. He was chair of the Appellate Practice Section’s Pro Bono Committee and is on the board of the Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.

Actually, law is Gowdy’s second professional plunge. His first was into choppy waters.

“When you’re on a ship in the Navy, you work pretty hard: You’re underway for weeks, and sometimes months, in a row. And as a ship driver, you have quite a bit of responsibility,” says the former junior naval officer. Even then, he was advocating for others.

“Sometimes my young sailors [would] do something they weren’t supposed to,” he says. “In the Navy you have a system called nonjudicial punishment, or Captain’s Mast, which isn’t quite like going in front of a judge—it’s a lot scarier.” Gowdy would try to help them obtain minimal punishment. “Similar to what we do as lawyers.”

So trying to change the course of the law is nothing new to him.

“I was driving a multimillion-dollar naval warship—that’s the way the military is: They give very young people a huge amount of responsibility,” he says. “So I don’t really think I’m young for what I’ve done, because I know people younger than me that have done more amazing things who maybe don’t get the same press.”

He may not be Atticus Finch, but then Atticus Finch never won a Supreme Court ruling.

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