Murder conviction of Fla. boy overturned

Mental competency as 12-year-old should have been checked, court says

December 11, 2003|By Paula McMahon | Paula McMahon,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - An appeals court reversed Lionel Tate's first-degree murder conviction and life sentence yesterday, ruling that the trial judge should have ordered tests to check whether the boy was competent to stand trial.

Tate, now 16, was convicted as an adult for the 1999 beating death of 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick in Pembroke Park, Fla.

He was 12 at the time of the killing and is believed to be the youngest person in the United States in modern times to have been sentenced to life in prison.

"The record reflects that questions regarding Tate's competency were not lurking subtly in the background, but were readily apparent, as his immaturity and developmental delays were very much at the heart of the defense," Judge Barry J. Stone wrote for the three-judge panel of the Fourth District Court of Appeal.

Legal experts predict the decision will affect future cases involving the prosecution of children as adults because judges cannot assume that a young defendant understands what is going on.

But it is not expected to have any effect on another prominent South Florida case, Nathaniel Brazill's second-degree murder conviction and 28-year prison sentence for shooting teacher Barry Grunow in a Lake Worth school.

Earlier this year, the same appeals court upheld Brazill's conviction for the shooting when he was 13.

Tate and his mother are ecstatic about the decision, said Tate's appeals attorney, Richard Rosenbaum, who phoned his young client in prison to tell him the news.

"He screamed `Oh yeah!' when we called him, and I heard all the guards cheering in the background," said Rosenbaum, who took no payment for handling the appeal.

Former Broward prosecutor Ken Padowitz, who tried the case but is now in private practice and represents the victim's mother, Deweese Eunick-Paul, said they are both disappointed by the appellate decision.

"She has always felt that Lionel Tate is guilty of the first-degree murder of her daughter and that he should be punished severely for it. But she also feels that life in prison was too harsh a sanction for someone of his age," said Padowitz.

Padowitz said he would have preferred if the appeals court had affirmed the conviction and then the governor reduced the sentence to "something more appropriate."

He has supported defense efforts to persuade Gov. Jeb Bush to grant clemency to Tate.

Bush rejected Tate's first clemency bid in June 2001 and recently put a second clemency request on hold until the appeals court ruled. In Miami yesterday, Bush said the case should run its course in the courts.

What will happen next is uncertain.

Prosecutors from the Broward State Attorney's Office and the state Attorney General's Office said they are still reviewing the appellate decision and have not decided what to do.

The possibilities include asking the appeals court to reconsider its ruling, appealing the decision to a higher court, going back to Broward Circuit Court for a new trial, or trying to reach a plea agreement.

The defense could ask for Tate to be released on bond, as he was before his first trial. For now, he remains locked up in the Okeechobee Juvenile Offenders Correction Center.

Rosenbaum said he hopes Broward prosecutors will again offer to let Tate plead guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for a sentence of three years in a juvenile detention facility, followed by a year of house arrest, 10 years of probation, psychological tests and 1,000 hours of community service.

"I think that's a very reasonable offer," Rosenbaum said. Tate has already served nearly three years of his sentence.

The prosecutor offered that plea agreement to Tate before trial but Tate's mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate, and his trial attorney, Jim Lewis, rejected it.

If they had taken the deal, Tate would have been eligible for release 10 months ago.

Many legal observers said the decision to reject the plea deal was a mistake. Even a defense medical expert testified Tiffany's death was not an accident.

The evidence showed Tiffany suffered as many as 35 injuries. One expert testified that they were of the kind caused by a three-story fall.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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