Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Jacksonville Man's Case Led to New Sentences for Juvenile Lifers - but He's Still Behind Bars; BEING GRAHAM

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Jacksonville Man's Case Led to New Sentences for Juvenile Lifers - but He's Still Behind Bars; BEING GRAHAM

Article excerpt

Byline: Tessa Duvall

Terrence Graham receives hand-written notes from men just like him, all across the country. They thank him for their freedom, and tell him he's changing lives.

"Hey man, I'm going back to court on your case," people tell him.

One letter writer says, "I too am one of the men that benefited from your victory in the Supreme Court."

Another mentions a family gathering. "We were sitting next to a young man & his mother who told us he is getting out in 3 months on the Terrance Graham Law. ... He said to tell you thank you so much & you will always be in his prayers."

Graham v. Florida is the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court opinion that said juveniles can't be sentenced to life without parole for crimes that aren't murder. To do so would be cruel and unusual because kids can change, the court said. As a result, Graham and 128 others like him got a chance for new, shorter sentences. A handful were released.

Graham, the Jacksonville teen whose life sentence led to the landmark decision, reads the letters in prison.

"Any time you can be of some assistance or help somebody, it's like nourishment to the body," Graham, now 30, said in an interview at the Florida State Prison at Raiford. "That's something I'll cherish for the rest of my life."

Graham will be in his late 30s when he's free again. His release date, according to the Department of Corrections, is Aug. 27, 2026, though it might be a couple of years earlier with gain time. For now, he's more famous around Raiford for his Twix cake than his historic case.

Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said it is not an overstatement to say Graham's case was "groundbreaking for youth involved in the criminal justice system."

"By striking (life without parole) sentences for youth convicted of non-homicide crimes, the court placed concerns about hope, redemption and rehabilitation at the center of justice policy for young offenders," Levick said. "Future gains for children involved in the justice system will likewise rest in the shoulders of Graham and the early decisions that came with it."

MAKING HISTORY

Like Graham, Jacksonville attorney Bryan Gowdy landed unexpectedly in legal history. He had never worked on a criminal appeals case before October 2006. But that first case would take him to the United States Supreme Court, change the way juveniles in the adult system nationwide are sentenced, and alter his perspective and career forever.

Graham was 16 when, in 2003, he and two accomplices tried to rob a restaurant using metal pipe. They didn't get away with any money, but one of the accomplices beat the manager before they left. Graham pleaded guilty for being there and served a year in jail for armed burglary and attempted armed robbery, followed by probation.

An arrest for home invasion robbery when he was 17 constituted a probation violation; and his attorney at the time, before Gowdy, asked the court for five years. The Department of Corrections recommended four. Prosecutors wanted 30. The judge gave Graham the maximum: Life without parole.

"I think the first thing that struck all of us, and perhaps it struck us because we were primarily civil lawyers, was just, a 'Really? Really? A juvenile, non-homicide and he gets life without parole?'" Gowdy said of when he got the case. "It was shocking, putting aside being a lawyer, it was just shocking that that was going on. So I think we recognized it was a shocking practice and that maybe the justices higher up would want to review it."

Gowdy dug in. He appealed Graham's case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which accepted it in May 2009.

"There was no stopping Bryan," said Mary Graham, Terrence's mother, who likened Gowdy to a pitbull. He's brilliant, she said, but with "swagger."

Gowdy says his perspective as a civil attorney led to him approaching Graham's case in a new way. …

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