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Florida teen gets life sentence

Judge rejects pleas for leniency, new trial for boy convicted of first-degree murder

Fourteen-year-old Lionel Tate listens during a sentence hearing in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, on Friday  

In this story:

'Please, don't give this child life'

Defense argued accidental death

Prosecutor offers to help seek clemency


FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida (CNN) -- A Florida judge sentenced 14-year-old Lionel Tate to life in prison on Friday for killing a 6-year-old girl when he was 12.

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."

Defense attorney Jim Lewis said after the sentencing that the defense team intends to appeal the decision and to seek a clemency ruling from Gov. Jeb Bush.

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

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Judge Joel Lazarus reads the sentence on Friday

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Excerpts from the judge's ruling and courtroom reaction

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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.

'Please, don't give this child life'

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."

Defense argued accidental death

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."

Prosecutor offers to help seek clemency

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.

Though prosecutors are arguing for the mandatory sentence, they have said they would not be opposed to a commutation of that sentence by Gov. Jeb Bush. One prosecutor has offered to help seek clemency for Lionel once he is sentenced.

Attorneys argue prison fate of convicted teen murderer
March 2, 2001
Florida judge hears motions in child murder case
February 23, 2001
Defense to appeal boy's murder conviction in 'wrestling death'
January 26, 2001
Jury finds teen guilty of first-degree murder in Florida wrestling death
January 25, 2001

World Wrestling Federation
American Academy of Pediatrics - Child Health & Safety Information

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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