The wrestling alibi

Posted: Mar 17, 2001 12:00 AM
The media has done a poor job of reporting on Lionel Tate, the Florida boy who, at age 12, weighing 166 pounds, beat to death a 48-pound, 6-year-old named Tiffany Eunick in 1999. Most people first heard about Tate as the boy who said he killed the girl because he was playing pro wrestling. Then he was the 14-year-old sentenced to life in prison without parole because Florida law allowed him to be tried as an adult -- a sentence Gov. Jeb Bush may commute. Start with the wrestling alibi. That's not the story young Tate gave authorities early on. At first, Tate told police he accidentally hit Tiffany's head on the table and accidentally threw her against a stairwell, while his mother, who was baby-sitting the children, slept upstairs. (At one point, the children woke her up. Lionel said Tiffany was making a noise, and the mother yelled downstairs that the girl better be quiet or she would "beat her butt.'') The wrestling story came later. An expert testified that the poor child's injuries resembled what would happen if she fell from a two-story or three-story building. Tiffany's liver was severed, her skull was fractured and a rib was broken. One juror told the Washington Post, "Anybody that went through that trial and witnessed the brutality, and the length of time it took to inflict the blows, would have to go with first-degree murder under the law.'' Tate's attorney, Jim Lewis, dismissed the prosecution's descriptions of Tiffany's injuries -- totaling more than 30 -- as propaganda. "There were only two severe injuries to that child, her liver and her head,'' he said from his car phone. The rest were "small bruises and scratches.'' What about the broken rib? It was, he said, "basically the same injury that caused a laceration to her liver.'' While editorials have castigated prosecutor Ken Padowitz for trying Tate as an adult, and subjecting the boy to an adult sentence, Padowitz believed he was "beholden'' to consider an adult prosecution because sentences for children who kill are too light. (You could read 20 stories on the case and not know this.) Padowitz believed tate, if tried as a child, likely would serve six to nine months. What's more, Tate didn't even have to serve the long adult sentence. More than once, Padowitz offered to settle the case if Tate would plead guilty to second-degree murder and agree to serve three years in a juvenile center, followed by one year of house arrest and 10 years of probation, testing and treatment. Mother Kathleen Grossett-Tate, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, and lawyer Lewis refused. Grossett-Tate explained, "How do you accept a plea for second-degree murder when your child was just playing?'' She calls Tiffany's painful death "an accident," the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports. Tate was placed in solitary confinement for wrestling with other inmates. Do-gooders say the system should work to reform kids who kill. But how do you reform teenagers who are only guilty of accidents? Lewis nonetheless wants Gov. Bush to free the young wrestler. "I'd like to see the governor commute his sentence,'' said Lewis. "I'd like to see him go home and be with his mom, and get the counseling he needs.'' Ahem. But being with his mom -- a 24-hour excuse factory -- is not what this boy needs, and certainly not what parents of small children need. Bush should commute Lionel Tate's sentence because life without parole is too long. But the commuted sentence has to be longer than the plea bargain offer ... make it twice as long ... or else there's nothing to lose with turning down a plea bargain. There should be a commutation only if he behaves himself behind bars, and it ought to be given only on the condition that mother and son both admit that Tiffany's death was not an accident.