Appellate judges ponder life sentence for teen

Wednesday, September 3, 2003

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Appeals court judges hearing the case of Lionel Tate, the teen whose lawyers said he was imitating pro wrestling moves when he killed a 6-year-old girl, questioned Tuesday whether some children might be too young to be locked away for life with no chance of parole.

Tate, who was 12 when he killed Tiffany Eunick, was too immature to understand what was at stake when he was sentenced to life without parole, attorney Richard Rosenbaum argued before the state 4th District Court of Appeal.

Judge Fred A. Hazouri asked what is to stop prosecutors from charging a 6-year-old with murder if the child gets angry at a Little League game, picks up a bat and kills a teammate.

"At what point do we say as a society that that is just too young?" Hazouri said.

Assistant Attorney General Debra Rescigno did not answer what age would provide a reasonable cutoff for a murder conviction.

She said Tate's life sentence was deserved because he horrifically beat the girl for more than five minutes, strangling her, jumping and stomping on her and slamming her into a metal pole.

Tate's attorneys said at trial that the boy accidentally killed Tiffany while mimicking wrestling moves he had seen on television.

Children who are Tate's age "are cognizant enough to know they're hurting someone and to stop their actions," Rescigno said, adding that Tiffany "would have been crying out in pain" during the beating.

Tate was convicted of first-degree murder as an adult and sentenced to life without parole, as state law requires. He is now 16 and living in a maximum-security juvenile prison.

About 25 of Tate's supporters lined the entrance to the courthouse Tuesday, each holding a sign that read in bold letters, "This is a child."

His lawyers have requested clemency from the governor and the state's elected Cabinet, who make up the clemency board.

Judge Martha C. Warner asked what safeguards protect a young child from Florida's broad law that allows any person, regardless of age, to be prosecuted as an adult.

"There's no discretion exercised at all in this -- no societal judgment," she said. "Age is not a consideration. That is what was argued through the whole trial."

Tate and his mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate, turned down a plea deal that would have required Tate to serve only three years in a juvenile prison. Rosenbaum said Tuesday that Tate's refusal of the plea offer shows how "clueless" he was about court proceedings.

His mother said it showed he was innocent.

"Lionel was 12 years old then and he was a child. He's now 16 years old and he's still a child, and he was treated more harshly as a child than some adults," she said. "It was clearly an accident then and it is still an accident."

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