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Fla. teen convicted in ‘wrestling’ death is freed

A Florida teenager sentenced to life in prison for killing a playmate was set free Monday after serving three years for a crime that touched off a national debate.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lionel Tate, the teen who killed a 6-year-old playmate and became the youngest defendant in the nation to be locked away for life, was released Monday after three years behind bars.

Tate clasped hands with his mother and they raised their arms in celebration after the 16-year-old left the jail surrounded by friends, family and lawyers.

Broward County Circuit Judge Joel Lazarus, who imposed the life sentence after trial, ordered Tate released without bond. He was freed late Monday afternoon in the custody of his mother, although he will have to wear an electronic monitoring device.

After the hearing, Tate gave his mother a faint smile, and she put her arm around him.

Supporters worldwide rallied to free Tate since he was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of 6-year-old playmate Tiffany Eunick in 1999. Tate was 12 at the time of the death; the first-degree murder conviction carried an automatic sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Sentence served
After meeting with a psychologist who will test his mental competence, Tate is to appear at another hearing Thursday, when he is expected to plead guilty to second-degree murder and be sentenced to three years.

Tate will be credited for the three years he has already served in jail and at a maximum-security juvenile prison.

Prosecutors offered him the deal last month after an appeals court threw out his original conviction. The plea deal is identical to the one the boy and his family rejected before his trial.

The appeals panel ruled that he should have been evaluated to make sure he understood what was at stake at his trial. They pointed to Tate’s apparent immaturity and his failure to accept the plea deal.

Tate’s attorney, Richard Rosenbaum, who won the appeal after taking on the case for free, said before Monday’s hearing that Tate was “anxious” but that his spirits were improved.

“I’m getting smiles now and then,” Rosenbaum said.

Along with the three years he has already served, Tate is to be sentenced to 10 years’ probation, a year of house arrest and 1,000 hours of community service. He will receive mandatory counseling and will continue his education with the support of his mother, mentors and community and church groups.

Girl beaten to death
Autopsy reports showed that the girl was beaten to death, suffering a lacerated liver and at least 35 other injuries.

Tate originally said he accidentally killed her while imitating professional wrestling moves he had seen on television. He now says he leaped from a staircase and accidentally landed on her chest.

Tiffany’s mother, Deweese Eunick-Paul, said Friday that she was not disappointed with Tate’s new deal, but she said the teenager needed to accept responsibility for murdering her daughter.

Eunick-Paul said Tate’s supporters were “making light” of her daughter’s death when they said the slaying, which happened while Tate’s mother was baby-sitting for Tiffany, was an accident.

Gov. Jeb Bush had a similar view, saying Monday, “I do hope that Lionel will express remorse, at a minimum, for what occurred.”