- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2003

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Appellate judges ordered a new trial yesterday for a teenager serving a life sentence for killing a 6-year-old playmate, raising questions about whether child murderers are competent to be tried as adults and locked away with no hope of parole.

The judges at 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 attorneys had claimed he was imitating the moves of professional wrestlers when he killed Tiffany Eunick in July 1999.

Tate’s family turned down a plea bargain before the trial that would have given him a three-year sentence.

“A competency hearing should have been held particularly given the complexity of the legal proceedings” and Tate’s age and known learning disabilities, the judges wrote in a nine-page ruling.

At a minimum, the court said, the judge had an obligation to ensure that Tate understood the plea offer and the possibility that he could get a life sentence if he rejected it. However, the court did not challenge the Florida law allowing children to be tried as adults.

“Florida courts have long recognized that there is no absolute right requiring children to be treated in a special system for juvenile offenders,” the opinion said.

Tate’s attorney had 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. A clemency request had been pending with the state’s clemency board.

Defense attorney Richard Rosenbaum said yesterday that Tate’s refusal of the plea offer shows how “clueless” the boy was about court proceedings.

“We’re ecstatic. … I thought from the very beginning that this was an accident,” Mr. Rosenbaum told CNN.

No one disputed that the 170-pound Tate fatally beat Tiffany in the Pembroke Park home he shared with his mother, who was baby-sitting the 48-pound girl. Kathleen Grossett-Tate, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, was asleep at the time.

An autopsy showed Tiffany suffered a fractured skull, lacerated liver, a broken rib, internal hemorrhaging and cuts and bruises.

Tate’s trial attorneys argued he accidentally killed her while imitating the moves of professional wrestlers he saw on television.

Tate told police that he picked up Tiffany and accidentally hit her head against a table. He later made a videotape with a court-appointed psychologist where 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 said Tate’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.

Family members had refused the plea bargain because they insisted he was innocent.


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