It was a tragedy that shocked the nation — the 1999 murder of a 6-year-old little girl, Tiffany Eunick, by her 12-year-old family friend, Lionel Tate. Perhaps as shocking as Tiffany's death was Lionel's conviction of first-degree murder and his sentence to life imprisonment.
Lionel's trial, broadcast on national television, raised serious questions about the way America prosecutes children. The state of Florida tried Lionel as an adult, and punished him with a severe, adult sentence. In the March 2001 sentencing, Lionel, then 14, became what is believed to be the youngest person ever sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Now, two years later, people are questioning whether justice was served, or whether Lionel should be shown some mercy. The prosecutor who won the case, even Tiffany's grieving mother, now feel that the punishment was too harsh for a child.
Tiffany's mom, Deweese Eunick-Paul, remembers meeting Lionel and his mom, Kathleen Grossett-Tate, after she and Tiffany moved to Broward County, Fla., near the resort city of Fort Lauderdale. The mothers, both divorced, became close friends and began helping each other take care of the children.
Eunick-Paul doesn't recall anything out of the ordinary about Lionel, who was 12 when she met him. He was a very large boy for his age, nearly 6 feet tall and 166 pounds. He never seemed argumentative or violent to her, she said, and he had played well with Tiffany, who, at only 48 pounds was about a third his size.
On the night Tiffany died, Lionel's mother was watching the kids. She is a Florida State Trooper and was scheduled to work an overnight shift. So, she fed the children and went upstairs to take a nap while Lionel and Tiffany played downstairs. Sometime after 11 p.m. that night, Eunick-Paul got a phone call. It was Lionel's mother, asking if Tiffany had any problems with asthma, because she wasn't breathing.
"I think I dropped the phone and started screaming 'my baby is gone.' " When she arrived at the hospital her motherly instincts proved, sadly, true. Tiffany was pronounced dead. But it wasn't until two days later, when the autopsy report was sent to the Broward County Sheriff's Office, that Lionel became a suspect.
Eunick-Paul recalls learning that Lionel actually killed Tiffany. Her reaction was "shock," she said, "It was just devastating. Really, really devastating."
The autopsy showed that Tiffany had suffered a crushed skull, broken ribs, more than 30 internal bruises. Her liver had been shredded and pushed through her rib cage. The case was sent to the Broward State Attorney's Office and the decision was made to charge Lionel as an adult — with first-degree murder.
Prosecuting attorney Kenneth Padowitz said the severity of Tiffany's injuries prompted him to consider trying Lionel as an adult. "My belief was that the juvenile system in Florida at the time would give Lionel Tate an average of six to nine months in a juvenile detention facility … In my determination, after many sleepless nights thinking about this, was not an appropriate sentence."
Wrestling Defense Backfires
In his January 2001 trial, Lionel sat quietly in court, almost as if he didn't know what was happening, watching through the eyes of a young adolescent. He never took the witness stand. Instead, his defense team entered a video reenactment into evidence, saying that Lionel, who loved wrestling, was only imitating wrestling moves he'd seen on television. But the wrestling defense backfired.
Padowitz said, "One of the main problems with this video reenactment that Lionel is describing on the tape how he accidentally threw Tiffany against a pole that held up the staircase and then she went into a wall was that this whole area was filled with boxes. And there was an exercise machine that was right in the spot … So, the way Lionel described this occurring could not possibly have been true."
Jury member Stephen Dankner agrees with Padowitz' assessment of the tape. "It didn't make sense to what the physical evidence showed to what he was saying that actually happened."
As the trial drew to a close, Padowitz was concerned that Lionel would be given a long prison sentence. So, he offered Lionel and his defense team a chance to reduce the charge to second-degree murder with a plea bargain. "I offered Lionel Tate, three years in a juvenile facility, followed by one year of house arrest and 10 years of probation with psychological counseling and therapy." Padowitz said he didn't understand why neither Tate, nor his attorneys, nor his mother accepted the deal.
On Jan. 25, 2001, the jury unanimously convicted Tate of first-degree murder. At Tate's sentencing hearing, just days after his 14th birthday, the judge stunned the court when he ordered Lionel to serve the rest of his life in prison, without chance of parole. It was a mandatory sentence in the state of Florida. As Lionel was led out of court in shackles, he broke down and cried.
Among those who were shocked by the verdict was Tiffany's mother. "Yes, you murdered my daughter," she said, "and I don't expect him to just get up and walk free. I didn't expect that at all. But at the same time my heart was set on what can you do to help him."
"If Only I Had …"
Before becoming a state trooper, Grossett-Tate had served as a staff specialist in the Army and was stationed at various bases around the world, even serving in the Middle East during the 1991 Gulf War. Because of this, Lionel often lived with different family members. Lionel had been living with his mother less than a month before the tragedy occurred.
She recalled hearing a noise from downstairs where Lionel and Tiffany were playing. "I came and opened the door upstairs. I didn't go all way downstairs, I opened the door and I said, 'What was that noise?' And Lionel said, 'That was Tiff.' "
Grossett-Tate said she heard a sort of moaning noise, not crying or screaming, but she didn't go downstairs to check on the children. "I went back and laid down. Later on, I don't know how long after that, Lionel ran up the stairs knocking on the door." Lionel told his mother that Tiffany wasn't breathing. She said she ran downstairs, checked Tiffany, started doing CPR, and called 911. Ever since then, she's struggled with the fact that she didn't go downstairs. "You just don't know. You know how when things happen, people say, 'If only.' If only I had gone downstairs."
To this day, she isn't quite sure what happened that night. Like Tiffany's mom, she was stunned when she was handed the autopsy report. "I was in shock. It was like a nightmare," she said.
To those who don't understand how she could reject a plea bargain that would have brought her son home in just three years, she says she felt certain that Lionel was going to be acquitted. She said she thought the jurors would "see the evidence for what it was" and acquit her son.
She said, when she heard the verdict, "I heard the words and I saw their lips moving, but it was not registering. I just couldn't believe it."
Are 12-Year-Olds Competent to Stand Trial?
Lionel's mother is now working with attorney Richard Rosenbaum to help Lionel either get a new trial or have his sentence reduced. Rosenbaum is taking Lionel's case without payment as a test case, in part, to determine whether the state of Florida should try juveniles as adults.
Rosenbaum said he doesn't think Lionel understood what a life sentence was. "I don't think that he had a fair trial for a number of reasons. I didn't think that he was competent to stand trial. I don't think that most 12-year-olds are competent to stand trial," Rosenbaum said.
He also said Lionel has become depressed and developed an eating disorder. "He's throwing up his food after he eats," Rosenbaum said. According to Rosenbaum, Lionel has lost 51 pounds since last May.
Even Tiffany's mother believes Lionel should never have been punished as an adult and would like to see his sentence reduced. "I still pray and I hope that he will be rehabilitated and that he won't ever do this to someone else again."
What Really Happened? Tate Talks About the Tragedy
In a telephone interview with Walters, Lionel said, "I'm sorry that this ever happened. I'm sorry that she died," he said. He wanted to tell Tiffany's mom that he "didn't mean to do it."
He also said he never understood what being sentenced to life in prison would really mean until his mom and lawyers explained it to him after he was sentenced. "It makes me feel sad, but I still gotta' hope for the best. I ask God to help me get through this program and help me do good so I could go home."
Rosenbaum said Lionel has begun to talk in detail about what happened the night Tiffany died, and it's quite different from the story that came out at his trial. Rosenbaum said, "I believe … what really happened was Tiffany went down to the bottom of the spiral staircase. She laid down. Lionel went upstairs to go to the bathroom, when he came down, like a 12-year-old, he bound down the stairs, he jumped and he landed on her."
According to Rosenbaum, this was enough to lacerate Tiffany's liver and crack her skull. "Lionel describes it as she jerked up like she'd been hit with a fibrillator and her head hit the ground again," he said.
Rosenbaum thinks that Lionel was too afraid to tell the truth at the trial. "He's just a kid. He didn't know what would help — and this actually sounds worse," he said.
Lionel's mother hopes to enter this new argument into evidence if and when her son is granted a new trial. She is also asking Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to grant Lionel clemency or reduce his sentence.
Even Padowitz is petitioning the governor. "Lionel Tate was rightly convicted of first-degree murder," Padowitz said, "But life in prison with no parole, I do not believe is an appropriate sentence for a defendant who was 12 at the time he committed the crime."