Pity the Second Circuit drug court participant who complains that he can’t get to treatment. Transportation problems are a tough sell with veteran prosecutor Owen McCaul. Legally blind since birth, McCaul has taken the bus to work for nearly 32 years.
A study in self-reliance, McCaul’s experience, compassion, and firmness are a perfect fit for the non-adversarial drug court model, says Leon County Judge Nina Ashenafi Richardson.
“He’s an inspiration to the entire drug court team, and he’s an outstanding lawyer,” Judge Richardson says. “Mr. McCaul brings them to the table. He is all about tough love, and it works in treatment court.”
McCaul’s service outside of the courtroom has earned him a niche in Florida history. In 2019, he became the first Florida School for the Deaf and Blind alumnus, and first visually impaired person, to chair the FSDB Board of Trustees.
Founded in 1885, the school is a fully accredited, tuition-free state public school for eligible Pre-K12 students who are deaf/hard of hearing, blind/visually impaired, or deafblind. The residential and day school serves more than 700 students annually through a variety of programs.
“Some of these facts are hard to chase down, of course, but we looked into it when I first came to the board,” McCaul said. “It’s generally accepted that I am the first alum and the first visually impaired person to serve as chair.”
A diagnosis of high myopia, or extreme nearsightedness, prevents McCaul from driving. A 2012 cataract operation improved his vision but left a residual “floater” in his left eye, forcing him to read mostly with his right. He uses a monocular and holds printed material extremely close to his face.
But McCaul navigates the Leon County Courthouse without a cane or service animal, and casual observers are often unaware that he is legally blind.
“I’ve been in social situations chatting with a woman, and she would say, what kind of car do you drive? And I would say, in the back of my mind, Okay, she’s not paying attention.”
When he was a trial attorney, McCaul was always careful to notify jurors of his condition.
“I didn’t want them to think something strange was going on,” he said. “Of course, I never made it a feature of the case.”
McCaul recalls fondly the first time he had to tell a judge in the felony division that non-verbal cues from the bench wouldn’t work.
“He had this thing where if he didn’t like what you were doing, he would scowl at you from the bench, or shake his head,” McCaul laughs. “And I finally just told him, I said, judge, when you want me to stop doing something, you’ve got to tell me.”
But McCaul considers his partial vision, between 20/200 and 20/400, “a blessing.”
“I see pretty well for a blind guy,” he jokes. “From a person who just has light perception, or who is totally blind, that’s a world of difference. With proper magnification, I can read just about anything except the smallest print.”
McCaul also represents the state in mental health and veterans’ courts, but those are not his primary responsibility. Four years ago, State Attorney Jack Campbell appointed McCaul and another senior attorney to serve as general counsel.
Campbell consults with them on big cases and major decisions, McCaul says. The job responsibilities include reviewing nearly every legal document that Campbell signs, including contracts and memorandums of understanding. If the office is involved in litigation, the two develop legal strategy, but usually engage outside counsel, he said.
“When Jack put us in office, he said he wanted a couple of what he calls gray beards,” McCaul says. “He wanted people who had enough experience that they could say no to him. I give him a lot of credit for that. Jack is a good administrator.”
In a statement, Campbell describes McCaul as “an outstanding attorney” and “a man I admire and trust.”
“He is doggedly determined to put in the time and effort required to succeed in every aspect of his life,” Campbell said. “However, he is also committed to see justice is done…. What makes him exceptional is that he tempers his power with humility. This shows an uncommon level of experience and judgment, which I find invaluable to me as state attorney.”
Years of prosecuting criminals and government lawyering hasn’t dulled McCaul’s sense of humor. He has long since come to terms with his vision loss.
“It doesn’t define who I am,” he said. “It’s a fact, just like I’m bald, old, and a little overweight.”
McCaul’s diagnosis was made at Shand’s Medical Center in Gainesville when he was 18 months old. To an extent, the news was a relief.
When he kept missing developmental milestones as an infant, McCaul’s mother took him to a pediatrician. In the backwards nomenclature of 1964, the doctor misdiagnosed McCaul as “mentally retarded.”
“My mom did not like that answer and she ended up taking me around,” to specialists, McCaul said. The doctors at Shand’s fitted McCaul with glasses.
“From there, I made up for all of the deficits and was a pretty normal kid,” he said.
But “Coke bottle” glasses didn’t look normal to McCaul’s classmates at Eau Gallie High School in Brevard County, and they put him through the wringer. McCaul jokes that his “smart mouth” didn’t help matters.
“I was getting bullied, getting into a lot of fights, not winning a lot of fights, but getting into a lot of fights,” he said. “It got to the point where I told my parents, I’ve got to get out of here.”
He transferred in his junior year to the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, and flourished. He graduat