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Boy gets life for 'wrestle' killing

Over calls for leniency, a judge sentences the 14-year-old boy, who was 12 when he beat a girl while imitating wrestling, to life without parole.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001

FORT LAUDERDALE -- Lionel Tate was sentenced to life in prison Friday for the beating death of his 6-year-old playmate, a crime he committed when he was 12.

Broward Circuit Judge Joel T. Lazarus had been bombarded with public pleas to find a way around the mandatory sentence Florida law prescribed for the boy. He refused.

In a scathing 40-minute statement, he heaped scorn on Tate's mother, the boy's lawyer, the prosecutor and Tate himself, whose acts he called "cold, callous and indescribably cruel."

Each of the adults in the case, he said, made decisions that contributed to the boy facing life rather than a lesser penalty.

Tate kept his head bowed, his chin in his chest, as the judge lectured, and wept after the sentence was rendered.

In Tallahassee, Gov. Jeb Bush said he would consider a petition for clemency but made no commitment on how he would rule.

In January, a jury convicted the boy, now 14, of first-degree murder for battering 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick to death on July 28, 1999, in what he said was an imitation of wrestling moves.

Sharply rejecting suggestions for leniency by the defense, and even prosecutors, Lazarus emphatically denied the defense's request to reduce the charge for which the boy was convicted, a move that would have allowed him to avoid imposing the mandatory life sentence for first-degree murder. Tiffany's death, Lazarus said, was not, as the defense argued, simply an act of child's play turned deadly.

In the summer of 1999, Tate was 12 years old and weighed 166 pounds when he began wrestling in his South Florida living room with Tiffany Eunick, a delicate girl who weighed 46 pounds and whom his mother was babysitting.

When the paramedics arrived, Tiffany was lifeless. Her skull was fractured, several ribs were broken and her liver was torn. Autopsy photos would detail more than 30 injuries.

A few days after Tiffany's death, Tate told police he picked her up and accidentally hit her head on a table. In a videotaped interview with a court-appointed psychologist, Tate claimed to have accidentally thrown Tiffany into a stairway railing and a wall while trying to toss her onto a sofa.

The defense's experts conceded that 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.

Lazarus said there was no justification for reducing the conviction to a charge of second-degree murder or manslaughter because "the evidence of Lionel Tate's guilt is clear, obvious and indisputable."

Tears streamed down Tate's face after he heard the sentence. His mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate, was at times stoical, at times weeping.

Grossett-Tate, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, had rejected several offers by prosecutors to have her son plead guilty to second-degree murder and accept a sentence of three years in a juvenile detention center and 10 years of probation. In addressing Lazarus before sentencing Friday, Grossett-Tate said Tiffany's death was an accident, so she could not let her son plead guilty to homicide.

Tate's lawyer, Jim Lewis, said he would appeal the decision and ask Bush to commute the sentence. Prosecutor Ken Padowitz asked the judge to uphold the conviction but said he supported the request for commutation.

At an unrelated news conference in Tallahassee, Bush said he would accept a request for a clemency hearing and asked that for now, the boy be kept in a juvenile detention center.

Lewis and Padowitz have said they would seek alternatives to putting the boy behind bars for life.

In an unusually sharp criticism of the prosecution, the judge said that if the state believed the boy did not deserve to be sent to prison for life, he should have been tried on lesser charges.

"To talk about travel to the governor to seek a reduction in charge or sentence, if accurate, is of tremendous concern to this court," the judge said.

"It not only casts the prosecutor in a light totally inconsistent with his role in the criminal justice system, but it makes the whole court process seem like a game where, if the results are unfavorable, they'll run to a higher source to seek a different result."

Padowitz defended the prosecution's handling of the case, saying that the severity of the crime justified trying Tate as an adult but should have included leeway in sentencing. He also noted that the defense had summarily dismissed an offer of a plea bargain.

Tate's supporters, including some human rights groups, say the sentence is too harsh for someone who was not a teenager when he committed the murder.

"The fundamental principle at stake here is that children are capable of change and growth and should not be denied that opportunity," said William F. Schultz, executive director of Amnesty International USA.

- Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers, New York Times, Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.

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