A 14-year-old boy who said he was merely imitating his pro wrestling heroes when he killed a young playmate was sentenced Friday to life in prison without parole--a fate that some jurors and even the prosecutor say is too harsh.
Broward County Judge Joel T. Lazarus imposed the mandatory sentence on Lionel Tate, calling his actions “cold, callous and indescribably cruel.”
Tears rolled down Tate’s face as his lawyer, his mother and several family friends asked the judge to reduce the first-degree murder conviction. But Lazarus said the trial was fair, the verdict just and that the sentence was mandated by law: “Incarceration for your natural life.”
Defense attorney Jim Lewis said he would ask Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to commute Tate’s sentence, and prosecutor Ken Padowitz said he would support the request. “This was a vicious, horrible murder. But I do not think that life is the appropriate sentence,” Padowitz said.
Tate was 12 years old when he beat 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick to death in July 1999. During the January trial, Lewis mounted a “blame pro wrestling” defense, in which he failed to persuade jurors that the boy--who then weighed 166 pounds--accidentally killed 48-pound Tiffany by imitating the actions of his television heroes.
An autopsy showed that Tiffany suffered a fractured skull, a lacerated liver, a broken rib, internal hemorrhaging and other injuries that even medical experts called by the defense agreed were inconsistent with horseplay.
Bush said Friday that he would not comment on a clemency petition until he sees it. But, he added: “It breaks my heart when we see these outbreaks of violence that just seem senseless--whether it’s in a school or, in this case, a child’s home.”
If Bush were to turn down any appeal, Tate could be the youngest person in the nation ever sentenced to life in prison.
“Shame on the state of Florida,” said Dan Macallair, vice president of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “This is something out of medieval times.”
Well before the January trial began, Lewis and Tate’s mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate, refused on several occasions an offer by Padowitz under which Lionel Tate would have served three years in a juvenile facility and 10 years of probation in exchange for a plea of guilty to second-degree murder.
Lazarus said Friday that “the evidence of Lionel Tate’s guilt is clear, obvious and indisputable. And that evidence supports the jury’s verdict.”
The judge said he found it “inconceivable” that the injuries Tiffany suffered could have been caused by replicating professional wrestling moves.
Actions Were Not ‘the Playful Acts of a Child’
During the two-week trial, Lewis argued that Tate was unaware he was hurting Tiffany when he flung her around the room of his home as his mother--a state highway patrol officer--slept upstairs. He said Tate spent hours watching Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Hulk Hogan and other World Wrestling Federation stars on TV.
After finding Tate guilty, several jurors expressed regret that he was tried as an adult.
And since his conviction, several organizations have supported a lesser penalty--including Amnesty International and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. (Tate is an African American, as was his victim.)
Before the sentencing, Lazarus said, he heard from dozens of people around the country--most of whom urged him to show mercy.
“Most letters and calls refer to the victim only as an afterthought,” Lazarus said Friday. “In the court of public opinion, Lionel Tate has turned into the victim.
“Tiffany Eunick will never have a second chance at life, and there are so many who plead for a second chance for the defendant,” Lazarus said.
“The acts of Lionel Tate were not the playful acts of a child. The acts of Lionel Tate were not the acts born out of immaturity,” he said.
Until the trial began, Grossett-Tate said, she had no idea her son could face life behind bars under Florida’s mandatory sentencing laws.
“People say I am a fool not to accept the plea from the state,” she told Lazarus on Friday. “But how do you accept a plea for second-degree murder when your child was just playing?”
Question of How Far to Go for Justice
Jeffrey Butts, a senior research associate at the nonpartisan Urban Institute in Washington, said mandatory sentencing laws and a rise in violent crime by juveniles often can lead to startling outcomes.
“We end up pushing the envelope on culpability and responsibility,” Butts said.
“You can go back 100 years and find cases of kids being executed, but this raises the question of how far we’re willing to go.
“Certainly, [Tate] is one of the youngest kids ever held responsible for a serious crime.”
Although tried and convicted as an adult, Tate could begin serving his sentence in a juvenile facility at the request of the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
Bush and Padowitz both said Friday that they would back that recommendation.
Another 14-year-old Florida boy, Nathaniel Brazil, is scheduled to be tried as an adult on a first-degree murder charge April 30 in Palm Beach County.
Brazil was 13 when he allegedly gunned down his middle school teacher.
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.