Fla. boy serving life could be free soon

Plea deal renewed in case blamed on TV wrestling

December 27, 2003|By Stephanie Simon | Stephanie Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

A Florida boy once sentenced to life without parole for a murder he committed when he was 12 could be out of prison within weeks under a plea bargain that prosecutors offered yesterday.

Lionel Tate, now 16, was convicted of first-degree murder in 2001 after he, his mother and his attorney rejected a plea bargain that would have put him behind bars for three years. The defense team had hoped to convince a jury that the 166-pound boy accidentally killed his neighbor, Tiffany Eunick, 6, while imitating wrestling he saw on TV.

But after testimony that Tiffany had suffered dozens of injuries - including a cracked skull, a broken rib and internal hemorrhaging - the jury ruled the killing deliberate. Under Florida law, the sentence of life without parole was automatic.

It was also immediately controversial.

Human-rights activists around the globe, including Amnesty International, campaigned vigorously for a court to overturn Tate's conviction. Two weeks ago, Florida's 4th District Court of Appeal did so, ruling that Tate had been too immature to aid his own defense and, in particular, to evaluate plea offers at the time of his trial.

After the appeals court ruling, Florida prosecutors had "a series of discussions with all the affected parties" and decided to revive the original plea deal, said Ron Ishoy, a spokesman for Broward County State Attorney Michael J. Satz.

Ishoy would not elaborate on the negotiations. But he did say that prosecutors felt they had to wait until Tate's appeal wound through the system before offering him a reduced sentence.

Under the deal, identical to the one Tate rejected, he would plead guilty to second-degree murder and accept a sentence of three years in prison, a year under house arrest, 10 years' probation and continuing psychological treatment.

Tate has served 33 months, mostly in a maximum-security juvenile detention center. If he accepts the deal, as seems likely, he will get credit for time served and should be out within weeks or, at most. a few months.

"This plea was the right deal before the trial, and it's the right thing to do now," Ishoy said.

Tate's attorney did not return a call for comment last night. Nor did the lawyer who has been representing Tiffany's mother, Deweese Eunick-Paul. In the past, she has indicated that Tate's sentence was too severe.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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