- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2004

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Lionel Tate, the teen who killed a 6-year-old girl and became the youngest defendant in the nation to be locked away for life, was released yesterday after three years behind bars.

Circuit Judge Joel Lazarus ordered Lionel to be freed without bail, a month after an appeals court threw out the boy’s conviction because his mental competency was not evaluated before trial. Lionel has since struck a plea bargain that will mean no further jail time.

Supporters have rallied from the Vatican to the United Nations to free Lionel since he was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick three years ago. Lionel was 12 when he punched, kicked and stomped the 48-pound girl to death in 1999.

The boy had claimed he accidentally killed the girl while imitating professional wrestling moves he had seen on television.

The case stirred debate over a Florida law that requires children convicted of first-degree murder to get life in prison without parole.

After Lionel’s conviction was thrown out, prosecutors renewed their offer of a three-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea to second-degree murder — the same offer Lionel’s mother had turned down before the trial.

After meeting with a psychologist who will test his mental competence, Lionel is to appear at another hearing Thursday, when he is expected to plead guilty to the second-degree murder charge and be formally sentenced.

He has agreed to one year of house arrest, 10 years of probation, counseling and 1,000 hours of community service.

Tiffany’s mother, Deweese Eunick-Paul, said she hoped Lionel would admit he was responsible for the death and stop claiming it was an accident.

“All we were concerned about was that Lionel would take responsibility for his actions,” she told Court TV after the hearing.

“He’s going to have to make the right choices and listen to the right people,” said his trial attorney, Jim Lewis. “Lionel’s got a second chance, and hopefully, he’s going to make it work — if he’s got help.”

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