Florida's juvenile justice

Posted: Jan 01, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

At first, Tate told the police that he accidentally hit the girl's head on a table and that he accidentally threw her against the stairs. Then, his lawyer said the boy was mimicking television wrestling shows and that "Lionel Tate was replicating what he saw being done by Sting, Hulk Hogan, the Rock -- familiar names to professional wrestling aficionados." (This claim spawned numerous newspaper stories in the United States and abroad about the negative effects on children of televised wrestling.) In March, Tate announced that he accidentally killed the girl when he jumped on top of her as she lay at the bottom of the stairs; so much for blaming the TV wrestling.

After a jury found Tate guilty of first-degree murder, then-prosecutor Ken Padowitz explained to me that he tried Tate as an adult because the law was too soft on minors. If convicted as a child, Tate likely would have served a mere six to nine months for the brutal murder of a defenseless young girl. If anything, juvenile sentences should be toughened so that prosecutors don't feel bound to resort to the adult venue.

Now, Tate may walk free into a world that is anxious to make excuses for his brutal crime. His mother's attorney, Henry Hunter, told The Washington Post that he is negotiating to make sure the plea agreement "won't tattoo (Tate) for the rest of his life."

It's too late. Tate's actions should haunt him for the rest of his life. Prosecutors may be ready to give Tate a second chance, but they can't erase the violent deathblows he delivered to 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick.