In 2001, a Florida court sentenced Lionel Tate to life without parole for the 1999 brutal murder of 6-year-old playmate Tiffany Eunick when he was 12. Critics regarded the sentence as an example of America's law-and-order mentality run amok. It was outrageous for prosecutor Ken Padowitz to try Tate as an adult, they charged, when the boy could have been charged under the more lenient juvenile system. It was wrong to try Tate for first-degree murder, when he was too young to understand the crime. Groups such as Amnesty International and the U.N. Human Rights Commission protested that Florida law was draconian and violated international law.
Afterward, Tate's mother, Kathleen Gossett-Tate, trotted the globe to meet with activists who dutifully denounced the practice of trying minors as adults. These activists either didn't know or didn't care that Tate, heeding his mother and his then-attorney, turned down a plea bargain that, if accepted, would have freed him from juvenile prison months ago.
Now, the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach, Fla., has overturned the conviction and the sentence based on the argument by Tate's new lawyer that if Tate had been competent to participate in his defense, he never would have rejected the generous plea-bargain offer.
So much for the Euro-view that Floridian prosecutors were bloodthirsty. Even Tate's attorney argues that the offer was too good to turn down.
Today, critics should realize that Florida law didn't hurt Tate nearly as much as his mother ad his defense lawyer hurt him. At the time that the offer was rejected, Gossett-Tate explained: "How do you accept a plea for second-degree murder when your child was just playing?"
Just playing? Tiffany Eunick died of a lacerated liver, a cracked skull, a cracked rib and internal hemorrhaging. Experts testified that the girl's injuries could not have been the result of an accident but were consistent with a beating.
Still, with the overturning of the verdict, prosecutors once again are offering Tate a three-year sentence (which essentially amounts to time served), followed by one year of house arrest with counseling and 10 years of probation. In return, Tate has to plead guilty to second-degree murder. His mother is reported to be hesitating because she prefers that her son plead guilty to manslaughter. But Tate's attorney, Richard Rosenbaum, has told the press that his client, who will turn 17 this month, is likely to accept the offer.
Tate should jump at the chance. If there is a retrial, Tate is not likely to impress a jury -- not after he has changed his story three times.