FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Lionel Tate walked side by side with his mother out of the Broward County Jail yesterday after a judge ordered the 16- year-old Florida boy, once sentenced to life in prison for first- degree murder, freed on bond.
Because of the ruling of a Florida appeals court, the original guilty verdict against Tate at age 12 for fatally beating a 6- year-old playmate was tossed out, along with the mandatory sentence of life without parole it carried.
On Thursday, Tate is expected to enter a formal plea of guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for a sentence of three years' imprisonment (satisfied, his lawyers say, by the time served after his conviction), one year of house arrest, 10 years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service.
After a 10-minute bond hearing before state Circuit Judge Joel T. Lazarus, and about 4 1/2 hours while paperwork was processed by state officials, Tate was released on his own recognizance. Under the judge's order, the gangly teen-ager was required to wear an ankle bracelet for electronic monitoring of his whereabouts. He will also undergo psychological testing.
It was a jubilant scene outside the courthouse, where Tate, his mother, lawyers, friends and supporters joined hands for a prayer of thanksgiving.
"For now, Lionel wants to go home," said defense attorney Richard Rosenbaum. "He wants to feel his pillow and he wants to sleep in his own bed."
In 1999, Tate beat Tiffany Eunick so severely she died. He claimed he accidentally killed her while imitating professional wrestling moves he had seen on television. Prosecutors said her injuries were the medical equivalent of being thrown out of a second- or third-story window.
It was the refusal of Tate's mother to accept a plea-bargain offer that led to the first-degree murder charge against her son and, after a jury's finding of guilty, the life sentence without parole mandated by Florida law.
But in December a state appellate court threw out that verdict and ordered a retrial, saying the young defendant's ability to understand and participate in the legal process hadn't been properly verified.
Family acquaintances said the teen's mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate had prepared her only child's favorite dish, curried chicken, for dinner last night and that a welcome-home party was planned at their townhouse in Pembroke Park.
"Just continue to pray for us because we're going to need it," Grossett-Tate said. "This is a new chapter in our lives."
Rosenbaum said mother and son have presented apologies in private to Tiffany's family. But yesterday, the girl's mother, Deweese Eunick-Paul, called on Tate to admit to murder.
Asked what she wanted to hear him say, Eunick-Paul said, "`I do take responsibility for my actions for murdering your daughter, and I'm sorry.'"