A judge on Monday ordered Lionel Tate to be freed after serving three years of a life sentence in the killing of a young playmate when he was 12 years old.
Tate, the youngest defendant in the nation ever to be locked away for life, will be allowed to go free under the terms of a plea agreement. Circuit Judge Joel Lazarus, who imposed the life sentence after trial, ordered Tate released without bond. Tate will have to wear an electronic monitoring device. It was expected to take a few hours to complete jail paperwork for his release.
Supporters worldwide have rallied to free the 16-year-old since he was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of 6-year-old playmate Tiffany Eunick three years ago.
Supporters said Tate recognizes that the reversal of his first-degree murder conviction will be his only second chance. The teen will be on probation for 10 years, and with his 18th birthday only a year away, another mistake would bring anything but leniency.
"A piece of his childhood was really taken away and he does not want to go back to jail," said attorney Richard Rosenbaum, who won the appeal after taking on the case for free. "The next time he wants to come and see the judge, he wants it to be so he can tell him how well he's doing."
The appearance before Circuit Judge Joel Lazarus was the first of two this week. At the second hearing, the court will make the final arrangements for his release.
Tate will receive credit for the time he served in jail and at a maximum-security juvenile prison for the crime committed when he was 12. He has agreed to one year of house arrest, 10 years probation, counseling and 1,000 hours of community service.
Judge Called Killing 'Indescribably Cruel'
Lazarus oversaw Tate's criminal trial two years ago and repeatedly rejected requests to throw out or reduce the tough sentence for the killing, despite Tate's young age.
At the sentencing, Lazarus called the murder of 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick "cold, callous and indescribably cruel" and pointed to Tiffany's fractured skull, lacerated liver, broken rib and multiple bruises as proof that her death was not an accident.
Tate's attorneys insisted he meant the girl no harm and said he was imitating pro wrestling moves he saw on television.
His conviction set off a worldwide uproar about Florida's harsh treatment of juveniles. Supporters took his case to Gov. Jeb Bush to plead for clemency, to Pope John Paul II in Rome and to a United Nations human rights meeting in Geneva.
An appeals court threw out the sentence last month, when judges ruled 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 a plea deal that would have given him a three-year sentence.
The plea deal Tate ultimately accepted is identical to the one he originally rejected. Tate's mother was heavily criticized for encouraging him to reject that deal the first time, and the mother of the victim in recent days urged Tate to take responsibility for the murder, which she and her attorney, Ken Padowitz -- the former prosecutor who argued the original case against Tate -- maintain was a deliberate killing.
As part of the plea deal, Tate will receive mandatory counseling and will continue his education with the support of his mother, mentors and community and church groups.
"We want to make sure that Lionel stays out of trouble and adjusts as best as possible," said Henry Hunter, an attorney for Tate's mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate. "The fact he was in jail -- he has a better understanding of consequences than most teens."
Tate will continue his high school education, but supporters have declined to say whether he will enroll in a traditional school or seek his diploma another way.
The Rev. Dennis G. Grant, who has followed Tate's case from the beginning, said his church and the community are prepared to help provide the guidance that a father figure would.
"In terms of encouragement and community support, it's there," said Grant, also the executive director of the Juvenile Restoration Council. "We're not just going to leave him by himself and say, 'We got you out and now you're on your own."'
Rosenbaum said he hopes Tate's case can inspire change for others locked up in Florida's tough system.
"I'm glad he got a second chance because the way the Florida juvenile system is set up, most people aren't lucky enough to get a second chance," Rosenbaum said. "Although we started off hoping we can change the system, this has really been about Lionel. But I hope someday we can fix the system because we can't keep sending kids away for the rest of their lives."
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