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Attorney Lyann Goudie, known for legal prowess, to be called ‘your honor’

The lawyer who has handled some of the Tampa Bay area’s most noteworthy cases had no opposition in her recent run to become a judge

TAMPA — Lyann Goudie had a moment at the end of a recent trial that was the stuff of TV courtroom dramas.

The defendant was Michael Keetley, accused in a 2010 shooting spree the state theorized was mistaken revenge for the robbery of the ice cream truck he drove for a living. Two men were dead, four others wounded. Goudie had championed his case for nine long years, picking away at inconsistencies in ballistics, eyewitness accounts and other evidence.

In February, at last, came the end of his three-week trial. A veteran prosecutor gave only a brief closing argument, strategically reserving the bulk of his final words to the jury to rebut whatever Goudie would say.

But she said nothing.

Goudie told the judge she would not give a closing argument, leaving the state with nothing to rebut, and effectively ending the trial right there.

The jury was unable to agree on a verdict, an outcome that could be viewed as a victory for the defense.

Goudie, 60, silver-haired and stylish, is a passionate force in the courtroom, looking at jurors intently with electric blue eyes. In 30 years, she has been both prosecutor and defense attorney, handling some of the Tampa Bay area’s most noteworthy cases.

A racketeering case involving more than 50 defendants and allegations of gang activity. A mother accused of killing her child. A man who spent three decades on death row before walking free into Goudie’s embrace.

Next, people will call her “your honor.”

Goudie announced a run for circuit judge last year, and when the deadline to qualify came in April, had no opposition. That’s widely seen as a sign of the respect she carries in the local legal community.

“It’s still kind of surreal to me,” she said.

Even in a town where people of Latin descent dominate the Bar, there is talk that Goudie might be the first Cuban-born immigrant to take the bench.

She was the second youngest of eight children, born to an English mother and a Cuban father. Her father was a lieutenant colonel in the Cuban military, twice incarcerated by the Fidel Castro regime. The family came to Miami in 1960.

There were inklings of the lawyer to come.

As her elementary school’s safety patrol officer, she once arrested her younger brother for jaywalking, spurring her parents’ rebuke.

Her response: “He violated the rules. Do you want him to jaywalk and get hit by a car? Don’t you want him to learn that lesson?”

She had a point.

She put herself through school selling electronics and stereos on commission for department stores. She earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Miami, thinking she would be a corporate lawyer.

But at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, she embraced criminal law. Her boss was the late Janet Reno, who later served as U.S. Attorney General for President Bill Clinton. Reno taught her to look at every case not as a number and a file, but a person.

“I think she had great potential,” Reno once said of Goudie. “She was a good lawyer and she learned quickly.”

Goudie tried being mild-mannered in the courtroom, like a female prosecutor she admired. But a judge told her that wasn’t her style. Thus came the direct, aggressive jurisprudence that has become her signature.

Lyann Goudie, then a prosecutor with the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, argues during a 1997 murder trial in Tampa. [TIMES | (1997)]]

She honed her skills as a prosecutor in Brooklyn. She remembers bad 1960’s architecture, chicken-wire windows, lawyers packed in small cubicles, rotary phones and a lot of violent crime She won 80 percent of her cases.

A relationship brought her to Tampa in 1993, where she quickly rose in the ranks at the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office. As a senior-level homicide prosecutor, she earned a reputation for toughness.

“Lyann’s potential is unlimited,” her bosses wrote in a performance evaluation. “An excellent trial attorney … tells it like it is and does not hold back.”

So it was stunning when, in 1997, she got fired.

The late State Attorney Harry Lee Coe gave little explanation. He even publicly denied that she’d been let go. Goudie said otherwise. She was devastated. Now she considers it a blessing.

She got called to the chambers of Judge Diana Allen, who encouraged her to do criminal defense. Some courthouse regulars wondered if Goudie could muster the same passion and intensity on the other side.

Allen appointed her to represent Deandre Williams, accused in a West Tampa shooting. Goudie pointed out discrepancies in the evidence and emphasized differences in how Williams looked compared to how witnesses described the gunman. A jury took less than 10 minutes to find him not guilty, her first verdict as a defense lawyer.

She later went to work for Public Defender Julianne Holt, defending high-profile homicide cases.

In 2001, she entered private practice with Tampa attorney Rick Escobar’s firm. The pair, both known for their aggressive styles, had battled each other from opposite sides of the courtroom when Goudie was a prosecutor. Escobar came to think of her like a sister.

“She was tough, she was tenacious,” he said. “But most importantly, she was honest and straightforward and didn’t have an agenda. She’s very matter-of-fact. She’s going to tell you what she thinks. She’s always been that way.”

Two years later, she joined the storied firm of the late Barry Cohen, where some of the area’s most talented legal minds worked. She had a hand in the case of Jennifer Porter, a young woman who avoided prison time for a hit-and-run accident in which two children died.

She also took on the case of Kristina Gaime, a Pasco County mother who once faced life in prison in the killing of one of her young sons and the attempted killing of another. Gaime eventually pleaded guilty to lesser charges and served 20 years in prison.

Goudie established her own firm in 2006 with her partner in law and in love, Kim Kohn. This gave Goudie the luxury of choosing which cases to tackle. She gravitates toward the ones that look daunting. Her style is to root out the weak spots in the government’s evidence and use it as leverage.

She represented a woman who’d been shot in the head and sued the apartment complex where it happened. A jury awarded damages of $16.4 million.

There was the Latin Kings gang case, a complex racketeering action that ensnared 52 defendants. The case later shrank to 28 defendants. Goudie convinced a judge that they were forced to attend a gang meeting under the threat of violence and that merely showing up did not constitute a crime. The judge ended up dismissing racketeering and conspiracy charges against all of them.

Recently, there was Paul Hildwin, who spent almost 30 years on death row for the murder of a Hernando County woman before new evidence pointed to a different man. Goudie steered the case through its final years and was there when Hildwin walked out of jail and put his bare feet on grass for the first time in decades.

Goudie says she’s her own biggest critic.

“I have never won a case where I sat back and went ‘wow, I really did great,’” she said.

She says she won’t serve more than two six-year terms as a judge. She embraces the transition from advocating for the state or the accused to looking strictly at what the law says.

“I’m beyond flattered," she said of her automatic election win. "But more than that, it kind of makes me feel like all the work I’ve always put into practicing law and how I represent clients was noticed by other people.”