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Lionel Tate pleads guilty to second-degree murder

Mother of girl killed sought public statement from teenager

Tate, left, listens Thursday in court as Deweese Eunick-Paul, mother of Tiffany Eunick, speaks.
Tate, left, listens Thursday in court as Deweese Eunick-Paul, mother of Tiffany Eunick, speaks.

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Teenager Lionel Tate may be allowed to go free after a plea agreement to reduce his conviction from first-degree murder to second-degree murder. CNN's John Zarrella reports. (January 29)
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Lionel Tate, the teenager sentenced to life for killing a 6-year-old playmate, was granted bond and released after three years in prison. CNN's Susan Candiotti reports (January 27)
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• Florida court's Dec. 10, 2003 decision: Tate v. Florida  (FindLaw, PDF)external link
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida (CNN) -- Lionel Tate, the teenager who in 1999 killed a girl half his age and less than a third his weight, pleaded guilty Thursday to second-degree murder in her death.

The plea agreement offered the same terms that his mother had rejected at trial nearly three years ago, sentencing him to no more jail time than he has already served.

Before the plea, the victim's mother sought a public acknowledgement of responsibility from Tate, but the teenager remained silent throughout the hearing.

"This was not child's play, this was not roughhousing, this was a brutal murder," said Deweese Eunick-Paul.

Tate, who will turn 17 Friday, was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his playmate, Tiffany Eunick, and in 2001 at age 14 became the youngest person in the United States sentenced to life without parole. (Full story)

After an appeals court threw out the conviction because he was not given a competency hearing before or during the trial, the state decided not to retry him, and he was offered the plea deal again.(Full story)

This time, his mother counseled him to take it.

The terms of the deal included the nearly three years he has already served, followed by a year of house arrest during which he must wear an ankle bracelet, and another 10 years of probation. In addition, he must serve 1,000 hours of community service, attempt to get his high school diploma or GED, undergo psychological counseling as deemed necessary by a psychotherapist and provide civil restitution at $50 per day to pay for his incarceration.

Judge warns Tate to follow new sentence

At trial, Tate's attorneys had argued that Eunick's death was an accident, that then 12-year-old, 170-pound boy was imitating wrestling moves he had seen on television with the 48-pound girl.

Autopsy results showed Tiffany Eunick had suffered some 35 injuries, including a ruptured spleen, lacerations to her ribs and damage to her rib cage, a fractured skull, brain contusions, a partially detached liver and bruises all over her body.

After entering his plea Thursday, Tate -- wearing a brown sportcoat and a brown shirt -- told Judge Joel Lazarus that he had nothing to say to the court.

"I'm sure you feel a great weight has been lifted from your shoulders," Lazarus told him. "A new and different weight has now been placed upon you ... you'll be under scrutiny for 11 years."

Lazarus told Tate that if any of the terms of the agreement were violated, the boy could wind up back in prison on a life sentence.

'He probably isn't sorry,' says victim's mother

Tate's lawyer, Richard Rosenbaum, said the boy wanted to speak privately with the victim's mother, Eunick-Paul.

Asked if she would agree to such a meeting, Eunick-Paul said, "I have to give it a little bit more time before I am able to figure out if it's something I want to do."

She expressed disappointment that Tate had chosen not to make any public comments in court. "All I wanted was for Lionel to come forward and say, 'I'm sorry for killing your daughter.' Just something like that."

Asked about Tate's decision to not address the court, Eunick-Paul said, "It tells me that he probably isn't sorry. He's just happy he's gotten out and that's the end of that."

In comments to the court, Eunick-Paul fought back tears as she remembered Tiffany, whom she had left in the care of Lionel Tate's mother, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Kathleen Grossett-Tate.

During trial Grossett-Tate testified she was upstairs in her home asleep at the time of the killing. Though Grossett-Tate testified that she heard cries coming from below, she did not investigate.

Prosecutor urges tougher juvenile laws

Eunick-Paul said she never wanted Tate to be sentenced to life without parole and for that reason had agreed to the original plea offer and the second one. "This could have been over three years ago," she said.

Tate's lawyers told reporters that the boy has apologized to the victim's mother in a private conversation, but Eunick-Paul denied it.

"We never had that conversation," she said.

But Michael Hursey, a lawyer for Grossett-Tate, insisted that the boy had apologized to Tiffany's mother. Asked for details, he said it had been a private conversation and, as such, "that's somewhat privileged, at this point."

Outside the courthouse, the former prosecutor in the case who is now representing Eunick's mother urged that the law be changed so that prosecutors are allowed to exercise discretion in sentencing in similar cases.

"I propose that we name it after Tiffany Eunick," said Ken Padowitz. "Tiffany's Law should untie the hands of judges when sentencing juveniles as adults."

He urged that the juvenile system be made tougher on juvenile rapists and murderers so that prosecutors would not feel compelled to try children as adults in order to get a stiff sentence. "It's time to change the law; it's time to stop talking about it."

Tate's freedom is no cause for celebration, Eunick-Paul said. "My daughter is dead. There should be no celebration. My wish is that Lionel would grow up and never hurt another human being. No other mother should have to live through the torture that I have lived through since July 1999."

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