Fla. teen gets 30 years for violating probation

May 19, 2006|By JON BURSTEIN | JON BURSTEIN,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Tears ran down Lionel Tate's cheeks when the 14-year-old left a Broward County courtroom in handcuffs as the youngest American ever sentenced to life in prison.

Five years later, after two squandered chances at freedom, Tate calmly walked out of the same courtroom after being sentenced yesterday to 30 years in prison for violating his probation for the murder of first-grader Tiffany Eunick. The 19-year-old briefly covered his face as his sentence was handed down, but there were no tears this time after listening to a judge's strong words.

"In plain English, Lionel Tate, you've run out of chances," Judge Joel Lazarus said.

Tate still could spend the rest of his life in prison after making a legal choice yesterday that baffled his attorney and prosecutors. Tate rejected a deal that ensured that he would face no additional prison time on an armed robbery charge.

Tate insisted that he wants to fight charges that he held up a Domino's deliveryman at gunpoint for four pizzas. He could end up with a life prison term tacked onto his 30-year sentence if he's convicted in a trial that is scheduled for Sept. 18.

Tate has been in the news media spotlight since he was arrested in July 1999 at age 12 in the beating death of his 6-year-old playmate inside his mother's Pembroke Park home. A jury convicted him in 2001 of first-degree murder, leaving Lazarus with no legal choice but to give him a life sentence. The case sparked a fierce debate over whether juveniles should be tried as adults.

Tate got a second chance at freedom in 2004, when an appellate court overturned his conviction and he got 10 years' probation with a plea deal for second-degree murder.

He was back in jail nine months later for violating his probation after getting caught outside after curfew. Tate spent 52 days in jail before Lazarus released him again in November 2004, giving him an extra five years' probation.

Seven months later, authorities arrested Tate in the May 2005 robbery and he's been behind bars since.

"Most do not even get a second chance, let alone a third chance," Lazarus said. "The choices were there for you, and you chose wrong."

Tate declined to speak yesterday before he was sentenced for violating his probation by possessing a gun and breaking a glass door at the Broward County Jail. Under an agreement reached with prosecutors, he faced a sentence of no less than 10 years and no more than 30 years.

Jon Burstein writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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