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Death sought for man suspected of killing toddler

Because of the heinous nature of the crime, the state is requesting the harshest sentence in the case against Eric Tate.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published October 11, 2006


TAMPA - Indicted for terrible crimes against a 2½-year-old girl, Eric Tate was despondent in a jail phone call to his mother.

"Everybody is praying for you," Cindy Tate said.

"That doesn't seem like enough right now," her son replied.

On Tuesday, things got worse. Prosecutors announced that they will seek the death penalty for the 18-year-old Lutz man, who is charged with first-degree felony murder, aggravated child abuse and capital sexual battery.

Tate had been babysitting his live-in girlfriend's daughter on Aug. 16, when he called 911 and the child was rushed to the hospital with severe head trauma.

Tate said little Heather Romance had fallen off a couch and hit her head on a coffee table while he had his back turned.

But doctors at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital said the child's injuries were not consistent with Tate's version of events. They noticed Heather was bleeding from her genital area. An exam revealed that she had been penetrated, according to case records.

Investigators found the child's blood-soiled panties on Tate's bed. Authorities released pictures of the purple panties, a white bed sheet and bloody baby wipes Tuesday.

Final reports from the medical examiner and DNA testing have not been completed. Brian Gonzalez, Tate's attorney, said the state has a circumstantial case unless DNA links his client to the case.

"DNA will be a critical piece of evidence," Gonzalez said.

Tate and his family have not spoken to the media. But in taped jail calls released Tuesday, they talked about him being wrongfully accused.

Tate rarely discussed Heather or her mother, Amy Romance, in the calls. He did recall a green stuffed toy of his that Heather liked, and told a story about Amy doting on him because she believed in traditional roles for women.

He said his former girlfriend must not know him very well if she believed that he would hurt her daughter.

"I wish the person who did this s- would come forward," he told his mother.

Cindy Tate said she believed her son was innocent.

"Children loved you, and you loved children, so there had to be something good in your heart," she said. "There's no doubt in my mind that you could not hurt a child. Ever."

Rita Peters, who is prosecuting Tate, said the case had four aggravating factors that convinced the State Attorney's Office to seek the death penalty. They include: a crime committed during an aggravated child abuse; a child under age 12; an especially heinous, atrocious or cruel act; and a defendant who stood in a position of custodial authority over the child.

Family members of Romance's and Tate's attended the court hearing where the state announced its intentions Tuesday morning but declined to comment afterward.

Gonzalez said his client has no prior record. A misdemeanor marijuana possession charge he received as a student was dropped.

Tate, his attorney said, is "scared to death."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 813 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.

[Last modified October 11, 2006, 06:14:18]


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