A 12-year-old killer who received a life sentence at age 14 stands to get a second chance. It's a good sign in a system that had lost its sense of juvenile justice.
Published December 30, 2003
They may have been teenagers or even younger, but politicians called them "super-predators" and demanded long, adult-like prison sentences. Over the last decade, this trend has transformed the way the criminal justice system treats juvenile offenders, and it has not been a change for the better. Consider the case of Lionel Tate, the young man from Broward County who faced a lifetime behind bars for a crime he committed at 12 years of age.
An appeals court recently ordered a new trial for Tate, saying this time his mental competency should be a factor in determining his fate. Tate was 12 years old when he killed a playmate, 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick. Prosecutors characterized it as an intentional act of brutality. Tiffany died of injuries that included a detached liver and skull fracture. But Tate's attorneys said the death was an accident and had occurred while Tate was emulating pro wrestling moves he had seen on television. In a move they would come to deeply regret, Tate's attorneys and mother refused a state plea bargain offer that would have sent the young man to a juvenile detention facility for three years for second degree murder - a reasonably lenient sentence. Instead, at trial, a jury convicted him of first-degree murder and Tate was sentenced to life in prison. He is believed to be the youngest American to face a life sentence.
His sentence shocked even the most rigid law-and-order advocates. Gov. Jeb Bush said initially that he would consider an expedited clemency process, but he ultimately decided not to intervene. Tate came to represent the excess occasioned when prosecutors abuse their discretion to charge juveniles as adults.
A panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal has begun to set things right, ruling that Tate should receive a new trial since there was never a pretrial hearing to determine whether he was capable of understanding the proceedings against him. The court suggested that someone his age, who had developmental problems and no prior involvement with the criminal justice system, may not have been competent to stand trial.
The ruling is eminently sensible, recognizing that preteens and some young teenagers may not have the mental capacity to appreciate what is at stake in a criminal proceeding and may be unable to assist in their own defense.
Unfortunately, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist has decided to challenge the court decision setting aside Tate's conviction. Crist apparently is concerned that the appellate court decision will have implications for other trials involving young defendants. But a pretrial competency hearing for someone as young as Tate facing adult charges is a reasonable precaution that serves the interest of justice.
Broward County prosecutors, meanwhile, have offered Tate the same plea bargain the defense turned down before trial. If the appeal by the attorney general's office doesn't derail the deal, Tate could be facing only a few more months in prison, followed by house arrest and probation. The mother of Tate's 6-year-old victim approves of the plea offer, according to her attorney.
Tate should be punished, but he does not deserve to spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime he committed as a 12-year-old.