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.
One letter writer 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 [sic] Graham Law. … He said to tell you thank you so much & you will always be in his prayers.”
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Graham v. Florida, that 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 [on] the shoulders of Graham and the early decisions that came with it.”
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, Jacksonville attorney Bryan 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.
Like Graham, 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.
“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.
“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.
“I used to represent big banks, and corporations, and when we had a case with a $100 million (at stake), we unearthed everything,” he said.
“Well, I just applied those same principles to a kid who was effectively facing death in prison.”
Gowdy argued that a life without parole sentence for a non-homicide crime was cruel and unusual punishment. Amicus briefs poured in, arguing that kids are different and kids can change.
The new approach worked. On May 17, 2010, the court said life without parole is an especially harsh punishment for a juvenile, calling it “cruel and unusual” in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
In writing the opinion for the 6-3 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “The Eighth Amendment does not foreclose the possibility that persons convicted of non-homicide crimes committed before adulthood will remain behind bars for life. It does forbid States from making the judgment at the outset that those offenders never will be fit to reenter society.”
Graham heard about the ruling after being called in from a prison yard game of flag football
“When I answered the phone, it was Mr. Gowdy’s assistant,” he said. “‘I’m calling to tell you the results came in. You won.’”
He asked, “You serious?”
‘THIS IS IT. THANK YOU, LORD’
Terrence Smith was in a common area of the Wakulla Correctional Institute in Crawfordville on May 17, 2010, when Katie Couric reported the ruling on the CBS Evening News.
“Today in a new ruling,” Couric read, “the court said juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole unless they killed someone.”
“I jumped up in the TV area, ran to my room, told my roommate to get out, and I just got on my knees,” Smith said. “The tears just came down, like, ‘This is it. Thank you, Lord.’”
Smith, of Tallahassee, was 17 when he was charged with armed robbery. He served five years in prison before he violated his probation and was sentenced again in 1994. He thought the most he would get was seven more years. He got life.
After losing all of his appeals, Smith said, reality sank in. Then he heard about Graham v. Florida and found it applied to him. He was released from prison in 2012.
Today Smith is a 49-year-old newlywed. He’s got a 3.8 GPA at Florida A&M University, where he is studying construction engineering part-time while working full-time as a project engineer for a construction and development company.
After his release, he wrote to Graham to thank him, and to encourage him.
“His case was the miracle in my life that I needed,” Smith said, “and it’s the thing in my life that I’m never going to take for granted.”
Of Graham he says, “I just want him to know that through this a lot of good has come about. He really needs to know that.”
‘IT’S NOT GOING TO BE THAT EASY’
After the Supreme Court victory, Gowdy sat him down for a frank talk.
“Look, I don’t want you to think that you’re just going home. It’s not going to be that easy,’” Graham remembered Gowdy as telling him.
“I don’t want you to just get your hopes up.”
The Graham family couldn’t help but feel hopeful. Mary Graham thought her second-oldest boy would finally come home. Terrence Graham was thinking he’d get some leniency since his second set of charges were dropped.
Circuit Judge Lance Day was not lenient.
“All right, Mr. Graham,” he said at the February 2012 re-sentencing, “The Court at this time sentences you to the violent crime of armed burglary with assault or battery to a prison term of 25 years.”
Graham was crushed. For the first time during his nine-year ordeal, he cried.
His mother said Judge Day didn’t want to admit he was wrong.
“We beat him in a mighty way and we made him look bad,” she said.
Since his incarceration, Graham said, three of his closest friends have been killed. His two younger brothers have been locked up, too. He’s worried he won’t have a relationship with his young nieces, and he can feel the distance growing between him and the rest of his family.
He sees his parents aging, and he wonders if they’ll be healthy — or alive, even — when he’s finally released.
‘THANKING GOD FOR MY SECOND CHANCE’
Jacksonville native Lavon Butler thought “my life would end in prison.”
Now 45, Butler, was 16 in 1988 when he shot a police officer. The officer survived with no lasting injuries, and Butler was sent to spend the rest of his life in prison.
When, under Graham v. Florida he became eligible for resentencing, Butler was a trusted prison worker, running the canteen, and had earned a number of program certificates.
The judge who resentenced Butler in 2014 was moved by his efforts to better himself and gave him 25 years, which he’d already served.
Today he’s living in Sarasota, working full-time. He’s married, has dogs and rides a motorcycle. He’s always upbeat about life.
Butler said he’d tell Graham, “’Don’t give up. Stay positive. Work them programs.’ He has to show everybody that he has changed beyond a shadow or a measure of a doubt.”
He said, “I wake up every day thanking God for my second chance. I’m blessed. It’s through Graham; he was the vehicle who allowed my blessing.”
‘STUCK LIVING BETWEEN TWO LIVES’
Graham can go months without a visit or a phone call, but any time there’s renewed attention on his case, people come back around. He knows people on the outside don’t always know what to say to him, but anything is better than nothing.
“I guess they feel like they don’t know what to tell me or the pain of not being able to do anything or say anything to make the situation better,” Graham said. “They tend to run away from it.
“That hurts the most. In this situation, you tend to seek love. I want to hear from my family. I want to see my family.”
LaTonya Hall, Graham’s best friend, said she’s never seen him so down. The usually positive, uplifting Graham is worn down.
“The whole time he’s been there, he’s always helped me out tremendously from there. Always been been there for me, always more worried about me and what I have going on and my kids. More than himself,” Hall said.
“Now, I just think he’s getting real tired, and it’s leading to frustration. But this is the first time in this whole time that he’s been like that.”
Graham says he feels like he’s in a tug-of-war between planning goals for his future while still fighting his case. He still hopes he can see his sentence reduced further, so he can go to college and get his degree in business management sooner. He wants to have his writing published, and maybe turned into a movie or TV show. He wants to speak to teens about his story.
He wants to own a home, get married and have kids.
“The more time I spend in here, the more those dreams and goals become dull. I’m stuck living between two lives,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of things I would like to experience in life and there’s a possibility that I have to keep in mind that I may not get out of prison. … The shorter it gets, the further it is away.”
‘A WONDERFUL LIFE AND GREAT KIDS’
Ralph Brazel was one of just a handful of inmates serving life in the federal prison system for non-violent drug crimes committed as a juvenile. Because of Graham, he was released from Federal Correction Institution Jesup in Georgia in 2013 after 22 years behind bars.
Brazel’s uncle, Ronald “Romeo” Mathis, was one of Florida’s most notorious drug kingpins until his arrest in 1991. Brazel was involved in his uncle’s operation as a minor, and received three life sentences in federal court for sales and possession of crack cocaine and conspiracy to distribute crack.
The Graham case “was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” said Brazel, 43. “When you look at it, going in as a teenager, they’re telling me society no longer wants me and I’ll be in prison for the rest of my life.”
Brazel is living in Southern California and is the operations manager at a local mosque. He’s married with a one-year-old son and five step-children. Brazel said he never lost hope that he’d get out and have a family, even after his two-year-old son was beaten to death by his mother’s then-boyfriend and that man was sentenced to less time than he was.
“I don’t have any complaints,” Brazel said. “I have a wonderful life and great kids. That’s a tremendous blessing.”
When Graham v. Florida was decided, there were 129 juveniles serving life without parole for non-homicide offenses. Of those, 77 were in Florida and the rest were in 10 other states and the federal system, according to the court’s opinion.
Graham and nine other black men from Duval County were serving life without parole for non-homicides, according to a list provided by the public defender’s office. Nine have been re-sentenced, and only one — Butler — had his sentenced reduced enough to be released. Excluding Graham, the remaining seven can expect to be in their 60s or older when they are finally released.
Though attention given the case has waned, its ramifications endure.
Stephen Harper, director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International University’s College of Law, said Graham’s case expanded on a 2005 decision that ended the death penalty for children.
With Graham, the court settled a debate: Is it death that is different, or is it kids?
“That sealed the fact that kids are different,” Harper said. “It changed the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court and made the fact that kids are different a part of constitutional law.”
Rob Mason, director of juvenile public defenders in the Jacksonville area, said sentencing children to life without parole is another kind of “death sentence.”
The Supreme Court’s opinion in Graham alerted the states — particularly Florida — that juvenile sentencing and incarceration required a major overhaul.
“Graham provides hope for immature, peer-driven, impulsive juveniles by affording them a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” Mason said.
Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, said that Graham, and cases that followed it, brought hope to many who were told as children that they would die in prison.
Miller v. Alabama in 2012, for example, said mandatory life without parole for juveniles, even for homicide, was unconstitutional. There are currently around 2,500 people nationwide serving juvenile life without parole. Lavy’s group wants to abolish life without parole sentences for juveniles.
“Hundreds have been resentenced and dozens have returned home to their communities after proving they were deserving of second chances,” she said.
However, Graham v. Florida does not mean a juvenile still can’t serve a life sentence for a non-homicide. The court wrote that defendants like Graham must be given some “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
‘I AM A MAN THAT WAS DEALT A BAD HAND’
The reality of Graham’s childhood was laid out in the first sentences of the Supreme Court’s opinion: “Graham’s parents were addicted to crack cocaine, and their drug use persisted in his early years. Graham was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in elementary school. He began drinking alcohol and using tobacco at age 9 and smoked marijuana at age 13.”
He says, “Our house was where everybody came to get high at. They used to run all the kids out and it could get to the point where we didn’t eat all day.” He says he said to himself, “One day I’m going to get out of this environment.’”
More than 12 years after receiving a life sentence, Graham is the first of his brothers to earn his high school diploma, and he did it behind bars.
He’s also completed AA- and NA-style classes to show he’s bettered himself, even though he wasn’t an addict. He works cooking for prison staff five days a week, and he reads voraciously. One day, he’d like to publish a book, or have a film made based off a script he’s written.
Looking back, Graham says, “It’s been some type of experience.”
Most days, he doesn’t care about being the Graham of Graham v. Florida. He’s gotten used to being addressed as “Terrance,” the common mispelling of his name that’s followed him since 2003. He forgets about it all until a new letter comes in the mail or a newspaper mentions his name.
Last week, Graham sent a letter of his own.
“It gets so hard in here sometimes that I just wish that I can die and get it over with instead of watching life pass me by. … Now I just want to live long enough to get out of here and show everyone that I am a man that was dealt a bad hand in life but overcame it, and can be someone positive and productive in society.”
Tessa Duvall, a staff writer for The Florida Times-Union, is a 2016 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. The above is an abridged version of a story prepared as part of her Fellowship project and published on Jacksonville.com. The full story, additional articles, and a photo album can be accessed here. Tessa welcomes readers’ comments.