Pool via AP file
Lionel Tate has been serving a life sentence for killing 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick in 1999.
updated 1/4/2004 5:47:26 PM ET 2004-01-04T22:47:26

A teenager whose life sentence for beating a 6-year-old playmate to death was thrown out signed documents Sunday pleading guilty to second-degree murder in a deal that could get him out of prison as early as this month.

Lionel Tate, 16, signed the papers at a maximum security juvenile prison in Okeechobee, where he is being held for the 1999 death of Tiffany Eunick. Tate was 12 when he punched, kicked and stomped the 48-pound girl to death.

His first-degree murder conviction and life sentence were overturned last month, and prosecutors offered the same plea deal Tate and his mother declined before trial. In the deal, Tate would be sentenced to three years in prison — most of which he has already served — plus one year of house arrest and 10 years probation.

“Just knowing it’s all been signed, I’m very happy for him that he and his mom are on the same wavelength and moving forward,” said Richard Rosenbaum, the teen’s attorney.

A judge still has to ratify the plea deal, a process that could take a few weeks, Rosenbaum said. No hearings have been scheduled, but Rosenbaum said he is hopeful Tate could be released by the end of the month.

Plea bargain approved last week
The teen’s mother, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Kathleen Grossett-Tate, said she would have preferred her son to plead guilty to manslaughter instead of murder, because she and Tate contend Eunick’s death was accidental.

Last week Grossett-Tate approved the plea bargain. Rosenbaum said the teenager had been awaiting his mother’s approval and estimated his client could be released from prison by Jan. 29. “Lionel Tate is ready to move onto the next stage of his life,” Rosenbaum said.

Tate 's punishment set off worldwide criticism over Florida’s treatment of juveniles.

The 16-year-old’s lawyers argued that Tate was imitating the pro wrestling moves he saw on television and did not mean to kill Eunick. Tate, then 12, weighed 170 pounds at the time.

Mental competency challenged
A state appeals court threw out the conviction and sentence in December, saying Tate’s mental competency should have been tested before trial.

The deal would let him plead guilty to second-degree murder and serve only the remaining three months of a three-year prison sentence, followed by house arrest and probation. Rosenbaum said he expects Tate to be released before the three months is up because the plea bargain would include credit for time served in the county jail before he was sentenced in 2001.

“I am thrilled that Lionel’s mother agreed that it’s better to be locked in one’s home rather than jail when you’re still only a child,” Rosenbaum said.

Rosenbaum said Tate “grieves everyday over Tiffany’s death and will think of her and the terrible tragedy for the rest of his life."

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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