Killer, 18, threatens suicide

Fla. teen who killed girl, 6, gets new psychological evaluation

December 06, 2005|By JON BURSTEIN | JON BURSTEIN,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- A hearing that could mean a return to prison for Lionel Tate, once the youngest person in modern U.S. history sentenced to life behind bars, was postponed yesterday after he sent the judge a letter threatening suicide.

The handwritten letter prompted acting Broward Circuit Judge Joel Lazarus to schedule a Dec. 19 competency hearing, at least temporarily delaying proceedings that could end with Tate receiving up to a life sentence. Lazarus had been set to start hearing evidence yesterday on whether to revoke Tate's probation for murdering a 6-year-old playmate when he was 12.

Tate's case garnered international attention in 2001 when he became the youngest American ever sentenced to life behind bars. His first-degree murder conviction for Tiffany Eunick's beating was overturned on appeal in December 2003, and he took a plea deal that allowed him to walk out of jail a month later.

But Tate, now 18, has spent the past seven months in jail after authorities say he robbed a Domino's Pizza delivery driver at gunpoint for four pizzas. Since then, other allegations have piled up against Tate, including that he gave one of his friends a service revolver owned by his mother, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper.

In the letter sent to Lazarus on Friday, Tate complained that his attorney, Assistant Public Defender H. Dohn Williams, has been ignoring his requests for a psychiatric evaluation.

"I stated to him before that I was hearing voices and that I wanted to kill myself," Tate wrote. "I feel that my attorney doesn't know my mental condition. He stated to me that I don't have a problem."

Tate wrote that his attorney is forcing him to accept a lengthy prison sentence.

"I feel like he is one of the voices in my head telling me to kill myself," Tate wrote. He cited a Florida law related to competency proceedings, saying that it entitled him to a psychological evaluation.

Within a few hours of getting Tate's letter, Lazarus appointed forensic psychologist Trudy Block-Garfield to evaluate him. Block-Garfield met with Tate this past weekend but wasn't available to testify yesterday.

If Tate is found incompetent, he will have to undergo mental health treatment until he is restored to competency.

Tate's initial murder conviction was overturned when the appellate court found that the trial judge should have ordered tests to check whether the teen was competent to stand trial.

Lazarus didn't make Block-Garfield's findings public yesterday, and Williams, as well as prosecutor Chuck Morton, refused to discuss them. Morton said he didn't plan to ask for any additional psychological evaluations of Tate.

Williams declined to discuss the letter's contents. He said Tate was under a watch at the jail to ensure he didn't harm himself.

But a Broward Sheriff's spokeswoman said Tate wasn't under any sort of protective watch.

Jon Burstein writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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