McCaul is first alumnus to chair Florida School for the Deaf and Blind Board of Trustees
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 deaf-blind. 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 Blind, and flourished. He graduated in 1982 as class valedictorian and voted “most likely to succeed.”
“It sounds impressive, but you have to remember that my graduating class consisted of 13 people,” he says.
McCaul remained in St. Augustine to attend Flagler College, where he earned an undergraduate degree in psychology. After reviewing the job market for a single day, McCaul decided to take the advice of an FSDB pre-law instructor who urged him to consider a legal career.
He entered Florida State law school and earned an “externship” at the Second Circuit state attorney’s office, which he now calls his “extended interview.”
When he first walked into the office to begin his externship, the supervisor was flummoxed, McCaul said.
“He didn’t know what to do with a blind guy,” McCaul says. “He said, well, we could arrange for you to observe. I said, with all due respect, sir, I came here to do this, that’s what the externship is all about.”
The supervisor came around, and McCaul crowned his externship with two misdemeanor jury trials.
McCaul took a month off from a clerking job at The Florida Bar to study for the bar exam, an episode he considers “the most miserable experience of my life.”
“I would read until I couldn’t read any more, because eye strain really is a thing, and then I would listen to the tapes while I was resting my eyes,” he said. “I was so unhappy taking the bar exam, that I told myself that if I didn’t pass, I was going to sell insurance.”
McCaul passed the exam on his first try.
After being admitted to the Bar in April 1989, (he was sworn in by a notary at The Florida Bar,) McCaul interviewed for jobs in 11 of Florida’s 20 circuits. The first opening he found was with the Second Circuit.
When then State Attorney Willie Meggs expressed some hesitancy about hiring a visually impaired lawyer, other lawyers went to bat for him, McCaul said.
“They went into his office and said, ‘he can do this,’” McCaul said.
Over the years, McCaul progressed from the misdemeanor division, to the traffic division, and the felony division.
“I did four years in the felony trial division, prosecuting everything from felony littering to attempted first degree murder,” he said. “I had a lot of fun with it.”
From 1994 through 2001, McCaul worked in a newly created felony intake division. He was made chief of the intake division in 2001.
He rose to general counsel in 2017, after Campbell’s election.
In 2006, McCaul was asked to apply for a seat on the FSDB board by former Flagler College President William Proctor. Proctor could be very persuasive, McCaul says.
“Dr. Proctor is not someone you can easily say no to,” he said.
In a statement to an FSDB spokeswoman, Proctor said he has no regrets about recruiting his former student.
“We at Flagler College take considerable pride in Owen McCaul’s many accomplishments, and as a former chairman of the FSDB board of trustees myself, I am honored that we share a common legacy,” Proctor said.
McCaul was appointed to the board by former Gov. Jeb Bush to fill one of two seats that state law reserves for a person who is blind or visually impaired, and deaf or hard of hearing. Fellow board members voted to appoint McCaul vice chair in 2010.
McCaul says he succeeded a chair who filled the “deaf seat,” but became ineligible to serve after moving out of Florida.
McCaul says he has enjoyed giving back to a school that gave him so much.
“I view the school very positively. Do I agree with everything the administration does? No, I don’t. But I believe it does a good job.”
The school has maintained its reputation for excellence, thanks in large part, McCaul says, to financial support from the Legislature, and a highly skilled and dedicated faculty.
“One of the things that sticks out in my mind is that almost everybody at the school loves what they do,” he says. “If you don’t believe that they love what they do, you’ve got to understand that most of them could go somewhere else, and do the exact same thing, and make more money doing it.”
McCaul says he never ceases to be impressed with the way the school sends residential students — who hail from across the state — to their homes and back every weekend.
“Think of the logistics of that,” he says.
When he is not working or performing public service, McCaul likes to spend time with his family.
McCaul met his wife, Erica, who is also visually impaired, at a teen summer camp sponsored by the Lions Club. They became good friends, but romance didn’t blossom until years later, when McCaul moved to Tallahassee.
Their 20-year-old daughter, Trisha, followed her father’s footsteps to Flagler College, where she is studying coastal environmental science. Their 17-year-old son, Ian, is a Leon High School student who has yet to decide a career path, McCaul said.
“He’s still figuring it out,” McCaul says.
Both children are blessed with good vision, McCaul says, and that blessing comes with an occasional responsibility.
“We have two children, and we jokingly refer to it as our grow-your-own chauffer program.”