Fla. teen pleads guilty to '99 killing

Under plea deal, Tate sentenced to time served in death of 6-year-old girl

January 30, 2004|By Paula McMahon | Paula McMahon,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Lionel Tate pleaded guilty yesterday to second-degree murder in the death of 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick but did not give the mother of his victim the public apology she wanted.

Tate, who turns 17 today, spoke only in response to the judge's questions, answering "yes, sir" and "no, sir."

Still Tiffany's mother, Deweese Eunick-Paul, showed extraordinary compassion for the teen-ager while also severely criticizing his mother, who was baby-sitting Tiffany when she was beaten to death in July 1999 in Pembroke Park. Tate was 12 at the time.

"I so much believe in God and forgiveness that I have forgiven you, Lionel," Eunick-Paul said in court. "I have forgiven you, Lionel, for brutally murdering my daughter."

"My wish is that you should grow up and never hurt another human being," she said as Tate listened with a serious, respectful look on his face.

When an appeals court threw out Tate's first-degree murder conviction and mandatory life sentence last month, prosecutors and Eunick-Paul, who never wanted Tate to serve life without parole, again offered the plea agreement that was rejected before trial.

Yesterday, under terms of the plea, Tate was sentenced to the three years in a juvenile prison that he has already served. He will spend the next year on house arrest, allowed to leave only for school, church and other previously approved outings. He will be on probation for 10 years and must perform 1,000 hours of community service and undergo psychological testing and counseling.

Tate could face up to life in prison again if he violates any of the conditions of the plea deal.

With his release from prison Monday, Tate had one burden lifted from his shoulders only to have it replaced with another, acting Broward Circuit Judge Joel T. Lazarus told him.

"You will be under scrutiny for 11 years, a long time for a 17-year-old," Lazarus told Tate, wishing him good luck. "The consequences of nonsuccess are so substantial that nonsuccess should not be an option."

The case stirred national and international debate over how to appropriately punish youths convicted of serious crimes when Tate became the youngest defendant in the country to be condemned to life in prison without parole. His supporters lobbied Gov. Jeb Bush, Pope John Paul II and the United Nations to intervene.

Tate's trial attorney, Jim Lewis, had mounted a defense that Tiffany's injuries, which included a fractured skull, fractured rib and severed liver, were caused by horseplay or by Tate mimicking pro wrestlers. A jury rejected the defense after hearing that the injuries could not have been accidental.

Among those recruited to guide Tate are several pastors and psychologists, and family friends including Delacy Davis, the head of Black Cops Against Police Brutality, a New Jersey-based group that also helps victims of crime and troubled youths.

Under legislation proposed by state Sen. Steve Geller, children younger than 16 would be eligible for sentences that would mix time in a juvenile facility with parole if they did not have a prior record of violence.

After yesterday's court hearing, Tate returned home to begin serving his term of house arrest at the Pembroke Park townhouse where Tiffany died and where a photograph of the first-grader is still on display.

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

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