Lionel Tate, the 14-year-old boy who said he was imitating professional wrestlers when he killed his 6-year-old playmate, was sentenced today to life in prison without parole.
Calling the murder of 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick "cold, callous and indescribably cruel," Broward County Judge Joel Lazarus rejected defense requests to throw out Tate's first-degree murder conviction, reduce it to second-degree murder or manslaughter, or order a new trial.
Tears rolled down Tate's cheeks after the judge read the sentence. He was placed in handcuffs and leg shackles and led off to jail. His mother seemed frozen, and several friends and relatives of the Tate family moaned and wept.
Lazarus said he was moved by the outpouring of public sympathy for the boy, but added, "at the same time I am dismayed by the lack of concern for the child victimized by Lionel Tate." Anyone who saw the physical evidence in the case could never label Tiffany's death "accidental," he said.
"The evidence of Lionel Tate's guilt is clear, obvious and indisputable," Lazarus said at a hearing in a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., courtroom. "And that evidence supports the jury's verdict."
Despite the stiff sentence, Tate still has a chance to avoid life in prison. Prosecutors said today they support defense attorneys' requests to Gov. Jeb Bush for a commuted sentence. After the sentencing, Bush said he would consider any petitions for clemency but did not indicate how he would rule.
"I am troubled by this," the governor said. "This isn't an easy thing, this is a tragic case. A young girl lost her life, this child's life has been altered forever."
'A Chance At Life'
Tate, who turned 14 last month, was convicted on Jan. 25 in the 1999 beating death.
Prosecutors said the 180-pound Tate — who was 12 years old at the time — inflicted brutal injuries on the 48-pound Tiffany, leaving 35 wounds, including a fractured skull, a lacerated liver, a broken rib, internal hemorrhaging and cuts and bruises.
Earlier, Tate's lawyers pleaded with the judge to be lenient on their client. "That is fair, that is just, that will give this child a chance at rehab, a chance at life," said Jim Lewis, Tate's attorney.
This morning, Lazarus also denied a motion for a mental competency hearing.
Tate's lawyers, Lewis and Richard Rosenbaum, argued the teenager is incompetent and cannot understand the ramifications of his alleged crimes and sentence.
Tate's defense never denied he caused Tiffany's death but argued it was a tragic accident. Tate, the defense said, never intended to kill the girl, but had an infatuation with the World Wrestling Federation, and was imitating moves executed by WWF star Dwayne Johnson, known as "The Rock.."
Defense attorneys wanted The Rock and other professional wrestlers to testify at the trial but the judge denied the request and limited the testimony to Tate's love of wrestling.
Under Florida law, life without parole is the mandatory sentence for a first-degree murder conviction. If he were 16 at the time of the death, Tate could have faced the death penalty.
Prosecutor Offered Deal
A first-degree murder conviction under Florida law does not require proof that Tate actually intended to kill the girl, prosecutors said, but only that he intended to commit the acts that led to her death.
Prosecutors sought a first-degree conviction because Tiffany's injuries were so severe, they were consistent with a fall off a three-story building. "This was a continued beating with fists and feet," said prosecutor Ken Padowitz. "Lionel Tate used his body as a weapon."
Before the verdict, prosecutors offered Tate a deal — three years in juvenile detention — but his attorneys turned it down.
Jurors convicted Tate on the charge after only three hours of deliberation. Amnesty International and other advocacy groups protested the conviction.
During a hearing last week, Tate's mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate, indicated her son was unaware that he was facing life in prison. She testified that she never told him about that possibility because she never thought his case would "reach that point."
"How do you tell a child you're going to prison for the rest of your life for playing?" she testified.
Still, Mark James, the victim's father, has said he wants Tate imprisoned for life. Alluding to the severity of Tiffany's injuries, he told The Associated Press, "I think he very much wanted to kill her."