Lionel Tate Sentenced To Life Without Parole For Crime Committed At Age 12
A News Summary By Terence T. Gorski (03-11-01)
The Associated Press reported that on March 9, 2001 that a Fort Lauderdale Court sentenced 14 year old Lionel Tate to life in prison without the possibility of parole for murdering a 6-year-old girl, Tiffany Eunick, when he was 12. While life sentences have been given to killers as young as 13, experts in juvenile justice said that this is the first time they could recall such a sentence being given to anyone as young as 12.
In January of 20001 a jury convicted Lionel Tate of first- degree murder for battering Tiffany Eunick to death on July 28, 1999 in the home of his mother, Ms. Grossett- Tate, a Florida state trooper, who was baby-sitting the girl.
Lionel testified that his mother was asleep in another room while he was playing a game with Tiffany in which he emulated the professional wrestlers he regarded as heroes. He stated that he body-slammed, kicked, and knee-dropped Tiffany and that he learned all of these moves from watching wrestling on television. Prosecutors said the girl's injuries — including a fractured skull, lacerated liver, fractured rib and swollen brain — indicated that the attack was extensive.
Judge Joel T. Lazarus of Broward County Circuit Court rejected suggestions for leniency by both the defense and prosecutors. He also denied a request to reduce the charge which would have allowed him to avoid imposing the mandatory life sentence for first degree-murder.
Judge Lazarus did this because he believed that the acts of Lionel Tate that caused Tiffany's death were not simply an act of child's play turned deadly. He judged them to be cold, callous, and indescribably cruel. As a result, the Judge decided there was no justification for reducing the conviction to second-degree murder or manslaughter.
The prosecutor had repeatedly offered Lionel's mother a deal in which her son could plead guilty to second-degree murder and accept a sentence of three years in a juvenile detention center and 10 years of probation. She refused the deal because she didn't believe that her son was guilty of murder. She believed that Tiffany's death was an accident and so she could not, in good conscience, let her son plead guilty to homicide.
Lionel's mother also said that she did not know her son faced the possibility of life without parole. Judge Lazarus said he had difficulty believing that statement because as a law enforcement officer she knows the penalty for murder in the first degree.
Lionel's lawyer, Jim Lewis, said he would appeal the sentence and ask Florida Governor Jeb Bush to commute it. Governor Bush said he would consider commutation and request that, for now, Lionel be kept in a juvenile detention center..
The prosecutor, Ken Padowitz, asked Judge Lazarus to uphold the conviction but said he supported the request for commutation. Both Mr. Lewis and Mr. Padowitz have said since the verdict on Jan. 25 that they would seek alternatives to putting the boy behind bars for life.
Judge Lazarus criticized Ms. Grossett-Tate, the prosecutor, the defense lawyer, the news media, and the hundreds of people he said had written or called him seeking leniency for Lionel. He described their actions as a deliberate attempt to make people "feel sympathy and compassion for a 14-year-old boy convicted of the highest offense known to mankind."
The Judge also said that the prosecutor should have tried the boy on lesser charges if he did not believe the boy deserved a life sentence. The
Judge criticized the prosecutor's support of petitioning Governor Bush to commute the sentence because such an act is inconsistent with the role of a prosecutor in the criminal justice system. The judge also said that petitioning the Governor to commute the sentence makes the court process seem like a game where, if the results are unfavorable, they'll run to a higher source to seek a different result.
Mr. Padowitz defended the prosecution's handling of the case, saying that the severity of the crime justified trying Lionel 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.
Tiffany's father, Mark James, said today that the outpouring of support for his daughter's killer should now be replaced with cheers that justice had been served. "He killed my daughter and basically he gets a life sentence and he's alive," Mr. James said of Lionel. The girl's mother, Deweese Eunick-Paul, had no comment. "I'm so happy he didn't get away with it," Mr. James said.
Local lawyers said they had thought there was little chance that Judge Lazarus, a tough former prosecutor, would reduce the verdict. Lionel's supporters, including some human rights groups, say the sentence is too harsh for someone who was not yet a teenager when he committed the murder.
"The fundamental principal 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, which has been monitoring the case.