Lionel Tate became the youngest person sentenced to life in prison in modern U.S. history when he was convicted at the age of 13 of murdering a young girl, but he got out on probation after his first conviction was thrown out.
Now, despite that fresh start, he could be going back behind bars for life for allegedly robbing a delivery man at gunpoint of four pizzas worth $33.60.
Gun possession is enough to revoke probation, and the judge hearing the case set to begin Monday, Broward County Circuit Judge Joel T. Lazarus, can put Tate back behind bars whether or not he is actually convicted of the new allegations.
“The state has only to put on evidence to satisfy the conscience of the court that there was a violation,” said Tate’s attorney, H. Dohn Williams. “You don’t have to prove that a crime was committed.”
To many juvenile justice experts, Tate, now 18, is a symbol of the difficulty that the justice system has dealing with children who commit serious crimes. Rather than seeking to rehabilitate them, Florida and dozens of other states have laws permitting them to be tried and punished as adults.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported in October that at least 2,225 people are serving life sentences without parole in U.S. prisons for crimes they committed under age 18. Six of them were 13 when their crimes were committed; none were 12 as Tate was.
“We don’t seem capable of recognizing that our traditional approach to crime and justice often fails with adolescents,” said Jeffrey A. Butts, a research fellow at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center for Children. “Prison by itself doesn’t do a lot to change behavior or improve someone’s chances of success.”
Tate convicted of fatally beating girl
Tate killed 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick, a neighbor his mother was baby-sitting, on July 28, 1999. His lawyers initially claimed the girl died accidentally while the 160-pound boy was imitating wrestling moves he saw on television, but experts said the girl died of skull fractures and a lacerated liver suffered in a beating that lasted one to five minutes.
He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in 2001. In 2004, an appeals court tossed out the conviction after finding that it was not clear whether Tate understood what was happening to him. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to time served and 10 years’ probation.
His mother, Florida Highway Patrol trooper Kathleen Grossett-Tate, insisted that he stay with her. Grossett-Tate has refused repeated requests for an interview.
He was arrested in September 2004 when police found him outside at 2 a.m. carrying a knife with a 4-inch blade. Judge Lazarus added five years’ probation and warned he would have “zero tolerance” for future violations.
Earlier this year, according to court documents, another teen told Broward County detectives that Tate stole one of his mother’s guns in March.
In a statement to police in June, Grossett-Tate said she didn’t report the incident because Tate and the other teen gave conflicting stories. She said her son “knows he’s not supposed to go in my room or touch my guns.”
On May 12, Grossett-Tate left for a 10-day Army Reserve assignment, leaving Tate home alone. Police later found that her three handguns were taken from a closet in her room. Only two have been recovered; none has been conclusively linked to the pizza robbery.
Teen tied to pizza robbery
On May 23, Tate allegedly called Domino’s Pizza from a friend’s apartment, ordering four pizzas.
The friend later told police that Tate, armed with a revolver, hid behind the door when delivery man Walter Gallardo arrived with the order. When Gallardo spotted the gun, he dropped the pizzas and ran, and called police.
Gallardo, 44, positively identified Tate as the assailant and Tate’s fingerprints were found on the pizza boxes.
Investigators also discovered that Tate had exchanged cell phone text messages with another friend earlier that day asking if the friend wanted to “bust that lick” — a street term for robbery.
The friend replied that they should do it at night, and the response from Tate’s phone read: “It’s better to do it in the daytime when nobody’s home and I got my fire,” which prosecutors say is a reference to a gun. Police say they believe the two planned to rob drug dealers.
Tate faces six charges of probation violation. The judge could sentence him to anything from life in prison to no prison time.
“He’s optimistic that there’s an end result that doesn’t send him to jail for life,” said his lawyer, Williams.