Appellate judges ordered a new trial Wednesday for a 16-year-old boy who is serving a life sentence for killing a 6-year-old playmate, raising questions about the Florida law that allows child murderers to be locked away with no hope of parole.
The judges on the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that Lionel Tate’s first-degree murder conviction and life sentence should be reversed because Tate’s competency should have been evaluated before the trial. The boy’s lawyers had claimed that he was imitating pro wrestlers when he killed Tiffany Eunick in July 1999.
The family turned down a plea bargain before the trial that would have given him a three-year sentence, insisting that he was innocent..
"A competency hearing should have been held particularly given the complexity of the legal proceedings" and Tate’s age, the judges wrote in a nine-page ruling.
Tate’s attorney argued before a state appellate court that the boy, who was 12 when he killed Tiffany, was too immature to understand what was at stake when he was on trial in 1999.
Tate was convicted of first-degree murder as an adult and sentenced to life without parole, as state law requires. He now lives in a maximum-security juvenile prison. Whether he will be now released pending his retrial was not immediately known.
His attorney, Richard Rosenbaum, has said Tate’s refusal of the plea offer shows how "clueless" he was about court proceedings.
Judges question safeguards
When the three-judge panel heard the appeal in September, Judge Martha C. Warner asked prosecutors what safeguards protected a young child from Florida’s broad law that allows any person, regardless of age, to be prosecuted as an adult.
"There’s no discretion exercised at all in this — no societal judgment," she said then. "Age is not a consideration. That is what was argued through the whole trial."
Judge Fred A. Hazouri asked then what was to stop prosecutors from charging a 6-year-old with murder if the child got angry at a Little League game, picked up a bat and killed a teammate.
"At what point do we say as a society that that is just too young?" Hazouri said.
Assistant Attorney General Debra Rescigno would not answer then what age would provide a reasonable cutoff for a murder conviction.
She said Tate’s life sentence was deserved because he horrifically beat the girl for more than five minutes.
No one disputed that the 170-pound Lionel beat Tiffany to death in the Pembroke Park home he shared with his mother, who was baby-sitting for the 48-pound girl. His mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, was asleep at the time.
An autopsy showed that Tiffany suffered a fractured skull, a lacerated liver, a broken rib, internal hemorrhaging and cuts and bruises.
Tate’s trial attorneys argued that he accidentally killed her while imitating the moves of professional wrestlers he saw on television.
Tate told police that he picked Tiffany up and accidentally hit her head against a table. He later made a videotape with a court-appointed psychologist in which he claimed to have accidentally thrown Tiffany into a stair handrail and a wall while trying to throw her onto a sofa.
But the defense’s own experts conceded that Lionel’s story would not have accounted for all of Tiffany’s injuries, which one prosecution expert said were comparable to falling from a three-story building.