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Coffey: Tate case a 'perfect storm of extremes'

CNN legal analyst Kendall Coffey
CNN legal analyst Kendall Coffey

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(CNN) -- A Florida judge ruled Monday that 16-year-old Lionel Tate may be allowed to go free from prison following a plea agreement that will reduce his conviction from first-degree murder to second-degree murder. (Full story)

CNN's Daryn Kagan spoke with CNN legal analyst Kendall Coffey about the case.

KAGAN: Let's get some legal perspective through the eyes of an expert. And for that, we turn to former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey, who happens to be in Miami. Kendall, good morning.

COFFEY: Hey, good morning, Daryn.

KAGAN: A lot of tragedy all the way around in this case -- of course, Tiffany Eunick losing her life, but also with Lionel Tate. As we ... heard ... even Tiffany Eunick's mother never thought that this was a boy who was meant to spend the rest of his life in prison.

COFFEY: This became one of those perfect storms of extremes, where a 12-year-old wound up sentenced for life in prison, where clearly he acted in a way that was illegal, but wasn't meaning to kill this little girl. In fact, she was a very close friend of his.

KAGAN: Well, and let's talk about how that perfect storm came to be. First of all, [according to] the law in Florida, once he was convicted, the judge -- his hands were tied in this case, right? He had ... to sentence Lionel Tate as he did.

COFFEY: Exactly. When Lionel Tate was prosecuted as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder, the judge's hands were tied. And one of the ironies of this case -- and while everyone is relieved that Lionel Tate will no longer be facing life in prison -- is that none of the issues of Florida's very harsh prosecuting and sentencing of juvenile offenders is going to be changed; not by a day of prison time.

KAGAN: So, nothing has changed. If the same type of situation happened today, it would play out the same way?

COFFEY: Exactly, Daryn. In other words, if Lionel Tate had refused this plea deal, based upon the appellate court's finding, if he went back to trial on first-degree murder and the jury convicted him, he would be back to life in prison. That's why it's so important that this plea deal was accepted and a much more just result is available for all concerned.

KAGAN: Well, and let's take it back to the beginning. This plea deal ... was on the table at the very beginning, and [Tate's] mother rejected it. Is that a mother that didn't have the best interests of her son at heart, or a mother who just really believed her son was innocent?

COFFEY: Clearly, she had the best interests of her son at heart, but it's very hard for parents to accept that their child would do anything so terribly wrong. And to this day, she really doesn't believe that it was anything but an accident.

Thankfully, for all concerned, the mother of Tiffany, who went through a parent's worst nightmare, has been very, very, frankly, compassionate about the circumstances of Lionel Tate. And one thing is clear the way prosecutors work in this day and age: Without the victim's [family] support for this plea agreement, it would not have happened. And the support of Tiffany's mother for what the prosecutor is doing is essential to the fact that Lionel Tate will be walking out of prison this week.

KAGAN: Well, and that, for him today, is the lead story: that he'll be walking out of prison. But what is he really agreeing to by agreeing to this plea agreement? He will be a convicted felon for the rest of his life. Is that right?

COFFEY: He will be a convicted felon, and he will have to stand up, presumably Thursday, and accept responsibility for second-degree murder. That doesn't mean that he meant to kill Tiffany, but it does mean that [he] acted, as the law would say, with a depraved mind, acted outrageously, creating an imminent risk of death to the victim.

KAGAN: Kendall Coffey in Miami. Kendall, thank you.

COFFEY: Thanks, Daryn.


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