Prosecutors and Defense both seek reduction in sentence for 14 year old

Friday, March 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida -- A state prosecutor said Friday he would join the defense in requesting that Florida's governor reduce the term of a 14-year-old boy given a life sentence for killing a 6-year-old girl when he was 12.

Lionel Tate was sentenced on Friday by a judge who rejected defense pleas that he set a new trial or reduce the term.

After the sentencing, defense attorneys Jim Lewis and Richard Rosenbaum said they would appeal to Florida's 4th District Court of Appeals in West Palm Beach and also ask Gov. Jeb Bush to address the matter.

"Nobody is going to desert this little boy at this time," Lewis said.

Assistant State Attorney Ken Padowitz said that he was "prepared to join with the defense to ask the governor and the cabinet to convene ... and reduce the sentence."

"That in no way means I don't believe the jury was correct," Padowitz said. "The verdict absolutely was correct."

"This murder ... was [the] result of a savage and brutal beating over the course of five minutes," Padowitz said. "This was not children's play. This was not an accident."

But, he said, the governor can and should consider Lionel's age at the time of the crime at a clemency hearing. He further said that his personal opinion was that judges should also have that discretion.

The appeals process could take up to 10 months, Rosenbaum said, but all of the attorneys said they would move quickly to request action from the governor's office.

Earlier, Broward County Judge Joel Lazarus rejected pleas for a new trial or reduced sentence, citing testimony about the severity of the beating inflicted on Tiffany Eunick that he said precluded doubt about what happened.

"The jury has spoken loudly and unanimously," Lazarus said. "And I am convinced they were correct."

In January, a jury convicted Lionel of killing Tiffany while the 166-pound boy was practicing professional wrestling moves on the 48-pound girl. Tiffany's death and the beating that killed her, the jury ruled, constituted child abuse.

Lazarus said it was beyond question that Lionel knew what he was doing on the day Tiffany died.

"The evidence of guilt was overwhelming," he said, dismissing defense arguments that Tiffany's death was an accident, especially given the considerable size difference between the two. "Lionel Tate's guilt is clear, obvious and undisputed."

The Broward County judge said his court had no jurisdiction to rule on defense contentions that a Florida law mandating that Lionel be tried as an adult -- and sentenced to life in prison on conviction -- was wrong.

"These are legislative decisions that should be addressed with the legislature, and not judicial decisions," the judge said."

Lazarus also rejected arguments that the sentence was cruel and unusual punishment, that neither Lionel nor his mother understood what was before them when they rejected a plea bargain and that a psychiatrist's remarks may have prejudiced the case against him.

Lionel sat with his attorneys, head bowed, for much of Lazarus' ruling.

But earlier, tears rolled down the boy's cheeks earlier on Friday as Deborah White pleaded with Lazarus to be lenient with the 14-year-old boy.

White told the court that she took care of Lionel when his mother was at work, and that her own children -- a 6-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy with cerebral palsy -- adored the boy who was now a convicted murderer and that she feared for Lionel if he were sent to prison.

"Please, don't give this child life," she said.

Lazarus listened to friends, teachers, relatives and clergymen make the same plea, more emotionally than the earlier arguments presented by Lionel's defense team trying to keep the boy away from a sentence of life in prison.

Most of those who spoke on Lionel's behalf argued that the conviction and attendant life sentence were more than the crime warranted. Some, however, argued that Lazarus overturn the verdict and send Lionel for counseling.

Lazarus said during his ruling that he was moved by the outpouring of concern for the boy, but fretted over the lack of concern for the girl he killed.

Lionel's mother, Kathalean Grosset-Tate, told the court that she wished she could do something to "give Tiffany back, but that's not going to happen."

"I have to stay here and fight for Lionel, because I know how Lionel felt about Tiffany, and I knew about how Tiffany felt about Lionel," she said. "So please be lenient."

The boy's defense argued that Tate killed the girl accidentally.

"All of us involved in the defense do not believe that Lionel intentionally meant to kill or to harm Tiffany," Lewis said. "We just don't believe it."

But the prosecution argued Tiffany died as a result of a brutal, sustained attack, and wanted the judge to sentence Lionel to the mandatory life sentence. The victim's father agreed.

"We need to be protected from Lionel Tate," said Mark James, Tiffany's father. "That's why I'm asking the court to go ahead and render the justice, which is life imprisonment."

The prosecution had offered a plea deal for three years in juvenile hall, one year of house arrest and 10 years of probation and counseling. Lionel's mother rejected the offer.

Lionel's attorneys tried to convince the judge that the boy's sentence should be reduced in part because he and his mother never understood the ramifications of rejecting the deal and going to trial.

"It's what we call the nightmare scenario," said Lewis. "We seem to be going down that tunnel, and if somebody somewhere, either this judge or an appellate judge, doesn't stand up and stop it, we're going to have a great miscarriage of justice."

Lionel's case has drawn widespread public outcry. Several jurors who convicted him of murder have come forward to support a lighter sentence.