Convicted killer, 19, enters plea in robbery


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Lionel Tate knew he risked spending his life in prison if he kept fighting the criminal cases stacked against him. The convicted killer refused to take a plea deal, though.

The 19-year-old told his attorney Tuesday he wanted to go forward with a probation hearing, gambling that a judge wouldn't take away his freedom forever.

But less than 45 minutes before the hearing yesterday was set to begin, Tate changed his mind, his lawyer said. What followed was yet another major day in court for the young man who gained worldwide attention in 2001 when he became the youngest American ever sentenced to life behind bars.

Tate pleaded guilty to robbing a Domino's pizza deliveryman at gunpoint for four 14-inch pizzas, worth less than $34. The plea deal calls for him to receive a prison term of 10 to 30 years when acting Broward Circuit Judge Joel Lazarus sentences him April 3.

"The boy faced consecutive life sentences if he had gone to trial and had been found guilty," said Ellis Rubin, Tate's attorney. "The proof was overwhelming. I've had this case since December, and I've gone over everything. This was the only professional and ethical thing to do."

Rubin said Tate decided to take the plea deal after prosecutor Chuck Morton agreed yesterday morning that Tate could appeal a recent court ruling in the case. That ruling came Friday, when Lazarus rejected Rubin's argument that Tate's original murder indictment was unconstitutional and the last seven years of court proceedings should be nullified.

"Lionel wanted to make sure he had the right to appeal," Rubin said.

The general terms of the plea deal accepted by Tate - capping his potential prison sentence at 30 years - have been on the table for "a long time," since before Rubin became Tate's attorney in December, Morton said.

Tate was 12 when he beat to death his 6-year-old playmate Tiffany Eunick on July 28, 1999, inside his mother's Pembroke Park town home. Tate's January 2001 trial gained national prominence as his defense attorneys argued he was mimicking pro wrestlers when he attacked Tiffany.

After a jury convicted him of first-degree murder, Lazarus had no choice under state law but to sentence Tate to life in prison. The sentence sparked a fierce debate over whether juveniles should be tried as adults.

A state appellate court overturned Tate's conviction in 2003, resulting in a plea deal to second-degree murder that allowed him to walk out of jail a month later. But nine months after that, Tate was arrested for violating his probation when he was found outside his home at 2 a.m. with a knife. He spent 52 days in jail before Lazarus agreed to release him on probation again.

Tate's final arrest came May 23, 2005, when he robbed pizza deliveryman Walter Gallardo. In addition to facing the robbery case, Tate had a series of probation violations leveled against him, including allegations he gave one of his friends a service revolver owned by his mother, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper.

His mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate, said she supported her son's taking the plea offer yesterday.

"If it gives my son a chance to get out, yes, I am in favor of it," she said.

The Rev. Dennis Grant, who once offered to serve Tate's sentence, said he's disappointed that Tate's mother has rejected outside efforts to help her son.

"Lionel is responsible for what he did, but with the necessary guidance and support, this could have been avoided," he said.

Under the plea deal, Tate admitted to two probation violations - robbing the deliveryman and possessing a gun - in exchange for prosecutors dropping four other alleged violations. Tate also pleaded guilty to a criminal mischief charge for banging his cell door so hard he broke the window. He will not have to serve additional jail time for that August incident.

Gallardo, the pizza deliveryman, said yesterday he bore no grudge toward Tate.

"I feel very sorry for him because he's still young."

Jon Burstein writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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