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Wolf Blitzer Reports

Was Sentencing 14-year-old Lionel Tate to Life Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

Aired March 9, 2001 - 8:00 p.m. ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Tonight: a murder or a tragic accident?


JUDGE JOEL LAZARUS, BROWARD COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT: The acts of Lionel Tate were cold, callous, and indescribably cruel.


BLITZER: One victim or two?


LAZARUS: You are sentenced to incarceration for your natural life.


BLITZER: A Florida judge issues a mandatory sentence to a 14- year-old for the 1998 killing of a 6-year-old playmate. We'll get perspective from CNN legal analyst Roger Cossack. And I'll speak live with both the prosecutor and the defense attorney.

Amid new threats, a memorial service will be held shortly for two victims of the California high school shooting. We'll have a live report.

And with millions of Americans making spring travel plans and major airlines facing potential strikes, President Bush weighs in. We'll have details.

Good evening. I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting tonight from Washington.

Kids killing kids: It's a subject we've been focused on all week, beginning with the tragic high school shooting in California. Today, a 14-year-old boy was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing a 6-year-old girl. And that's our top story.


(voice-over): The judge said the evidence against the 14-year- old was indisputable.

LAZARUS: The acts of Lionel Tate were not the playful acts of a child. The acts of Lionel Tate were not the acts born out of immaturity. The acts of Lionel Tate were cold, callous and indescribably cruel.

BLITZER: Judge Joel Lazarus handed down a mandatory sentence of life without parole, after rejecting the defense's plea for a new trial and refusing to reduce the verdict from first- to second-degree murder.

The prosecutor says he had appealed to the defense to accept a plea bargain, one that would have given Tate three years in a juvenile prison, one year of house arrest and 10 years probation.

KEN PADOWITZ, PROSECUTOR: A good plea bargain. And it was rejected time and time again.

BLITZER: Even so, he's now prepared to join the defense in asking Florida Governor Jeb Bush to reduce the sentence. Governor Bush says he will consider such a request. Tiffany Eunick was 6 years old when she was killed by her then 12-year-old playmate at his home.

RICHARD ROSENBAUM, LIONEL TATE ATTY.: This was play that went too far. This was not something intentional, where Lionel went out with a criminal intent to do something bad.

BLITZER: The defense maintained the boy was simply imitating moves he'd seen on TV wrestling. But the prosecutor argued Tiffany's injuries resulted from a brutal, sustained attack.

PADOWITZ: This murder of Tiffany Eunick was the result of a savage and brutal beating over the course of five minutes of a little 6-year-old girl. This was not children's play. This was not an accident.


BLITZER: The defense admits to mistakes. The prosecution is ready to work for clemency.

Let's get a closer look at this controversial case from CNN legal analyst Roger Cossack.

Roger, how extraordinary is this case?

ROGER COSSACK, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Wolf, it's very extraordinary just in the facts that we now see a 14-year-old sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The horror of such a thing under the supposedly fair criminal justice system that we have in America makes everybody blink. And in some ways, I think that what happened here is, you had a prosecution and a defense square off with each other. And neither one blinked. And then, all of the sudden, this horrible event occurred in front of whole country. The judge didn't blink either. And, of course, this 14-year-old boy now spends the rest of his life in prison without possibility of parole -- at least at this time.

BLITZER: Did the judge have no discretion in deciding this case and deciding that there would be a life sentence without the possibility of parole?

COSSACK: He had very little discretion, Wolf.

Unlike -- you know, this in many ways brings to mind the nanny trial, in which this verdict, the verdict convicting her came -- was come upon by the jury, and yet the judge was able to reduce the verdict and release her from jail. And the reason for that was that there is a statute in Massachusetts that gave the judge that kind of discretion.

In Florida, the judge does not have that statute, does not have that law, and does not have the kind of discretion that the judge in Massachusetts had. And he was pretty well stuck with his hands tied, too.

BLITZER: Both sides -- the prosecution and the defense attorneys -- are now appealing to Governor Jeb Bush to come in with some sort of clemency. How likely is that?

COSSACK: Well, again, that now becomes a political question really more than a legal question. But remember this, Wolf: This is the handiwork, if you will, of the Florida legislation. They decided, the legislation -- the legislature did, that this is something they wanted.

They wanted young people of this age able to be tried as adults in these kinds of crimes. Well, they got what they wanted. The prosecution went ahead and tried this boy for first-degree murder. If they didn't believe that he was guilty of first-degree murder -- and he knew when -- the prosecutor knew full well what the penalty was -- I don't know understand why he went forward and now says: I want clemency.

Why the defense never took this plea bargain, we will never know. And then leaving it up to the hands of the judge, who has no discretion, and we see what happens.

BLITZER: The Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Life in prison without parole for a 14-year-old for a crime committed at the age of 12 seems, to a lot of people out there, cruel and unusual. Couldn't that have been an issue in this whole proceeding?

COSSACK: It sounds like cruel and/or unusual punishment, Wolf. But under many, many cases, this is not. Remember, the Florida state legislature decided that children as young as 12 years old -- or as 14 -- can be tried as adults in certain kinds of crimes. That is constitutional. What is the penalty? You get treated like an adult. What is the penalty for adult? Life without possibility of parole.

In fact, if he was an adult, if he wasn't 12 years old when this started, he could have been eligible for the death penalty. The break they give him is that he doesn't get the death penalty, but spends the rest of his life in jail without parole. I would think that Governor Bush is going to have do something about that. I mean, this is just an anomaly. This is the inmates taking over the asylum.

BLITZER: OK, Roger Cossack, here in Washington, thank you very much.

In just a few minutes, we'll get more insight into this extraordinary case. I'll speak live with both the prosecutor and the defense attorney.

Meanwhile, it's also been a traumatic week for a San Diego suburb, where two students were killed in a high school shooting spree. CNN's Eric Horng joins us now live from Santee, California, where the community is preparing for a memorial.

Eric, just a little while ago, the community heard, for the first time, some of those 911 emergency tapes recordings that were made right after the shooting. What did we learn from that?

ERIC HORNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf: authorities releasing those tapes, those 911 tapes from Monday. They paint a very chilling portrait of the attack on Monday. You are about to hear an excerpt from one student who was hiding in the rest room of Santana High School at the time of the shooting. Let's listen in.






UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: OK, honey. OK, where is the shooter?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE STUDENT: He was in the boy's bathroom.

UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: He was in the boy's bathroom.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE STUDENT: He was in the boy's bathroom.

UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: OK, where -- honey, listen to me.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE STUDENT: I'm in the boy's P.E. bathroom.

UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: Is he in there with you?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE STUDENT: No, he is not. I don't know where he was. Everybody was running around. UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: Who is he?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE STUDENT: I don't know. I just caught a glimpse of him.

UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: OK, what kind of a gun does he have, honey?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE STUDENT: It was a pretty small. It looks like a pistol or something.

UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: A male. Is it a student?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE STUDENT: Yes, a male student. He was in the boy's bathroom.

UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: How many people have been shot?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE STUDENT: A friend of mine has been shot. I think a few others have.

UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: OK, honey. Is there somebody there that can help you stop the bleeding?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE STUDENT: Yes. Do you want that talk to him?

UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: Yes, let me talk to him.


HORNG: Also, for the first time this week, a statement was released by the family of the alleged gunman, Charles Andrew Williams. It was released through their public defender today, and says, in part -- quote -- "They" -- meaning the family -- "would like all of you to know that they were horror-stricken by the events that took place. And they remain shocked and confused" -- that statement released through the public defender by the family of Charles Andrew Williams.

As we mentioned, in about two hours or so here at the Sunrise Community Church in Santee: a public memorial service expected to kick off to remember the two students who were killed, Bryan Zuckor and Randy Gordon -- California Governor Gray Davis expected to be in attendance. He'll be one of the 3,000 people expected here tonight -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Eric, I understand there has been some negative fallout toward the news media as a result of the shooting in Santee. How is that playing out?

HORNG: It has been somewhat of strained relationship between the people of Santee and the media here. There's been a very large media presence, as you know. And a number of the people in the community feel that the media has been kind of going overboard with their coverage. But at least one local station here in San Diego is trying to reach out to the community. KGTV, a station based in San Diego, tonight will be preempting about an hour of its prime-time programming, will be playing some graphics on the screen aimed at community outreach. The purpose of that, according to Darrell Brown, the G.M. of KGTV, he told CNN -- quote -- "is to encourage families to turn off the TV and spend time with each other and connect" -- that from Darrell Brown, the general manager of KGTV -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Eric Horng, in Santee, thank you very much.

A child victim, a child killer; In seeking justice for one, did the legal system fail the other? I'll discuss Florida's Lionel Tate case with the prosecutor and the defense attorney.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back.

He was 12 when he killed 6-year-old playmate Tiffany Eunick. Today, at age 14, Lionel Tate received a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. The defense calls the so-called wrestling death a tragic accident. The prosecution calls it a savage murder. But both sides will seek to reduce the sentence.

Was justice done? Did the system fail? Joining me live from Fort Lauderdale, Florida: defense attorney Jim Lewis and prosecutor Ken Padowitz.

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

I want to begin with you, Mr. Lewis, first of all. The -- a lot of people are asking: Why didn't you accept that plea agreement? And the judge in this particular, Joel Lazarus, seemed to admonish you, the defense attorneys, for rejecting that plea agreement. Listen to what he said in court earlier today.


LAZARUS: The prosecutor said the defense merely had to approach him for the negotiations to commence. But no one approached him. And the prosecutors did not make any effort to initiative resolution. But even if they had, subsequent comments from the defense clearly show that a plea was unacceptable as a resolution. There has not been any acknowledgement that Lionel Tate did anything wrong at any time, and he would never plead to what was, in his mind, an accident.


BLITZER: What happened? Why didn't you work out that plea agreement, which, of course, with hindsight, seems relatively reasonable?

JIM LEWIS, LIONEL TATE ATTORNEY: Well, it was a very reasonable plea if this child had intentionally killed or hurt this little girl. But all the evidence that we saw, that we heard from this child was that this was a very unfortunate accident.

No question that the outcome of his playing or wrestling with this little girl was a tragic event. But to compare him to someone who goes to a school with a gun and shoots and kills people, and that he should get a sentence like that, I think is totally unfair and totally not right.

BLITZER: Mr. Padowitz, the judge seemed to admonish the prosecution as well. I want you to listen to what he said, referring to some of the, perhaps, second thoughts that you have had in connection with this entire case as well.

Listen to this excerpt.


LAZARUS: ... the state now believes that a murder-in-the-first- degree verdict was inappropriate, I need not remind them that they had well over 500 days, from the date of indictment to the date of jury selection to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) their case and refile as murder in the second degree or manslaughter, the latter change apparently now the basis for the final plea negotiations. They got what they wanted. They now have to take responsibility for their actions on seeking it in the first instance.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Did you get what you wanted, Mr. Padowitz?

PADOWITZ: Yes, I got -- for a vicious and savage and brutal beating of little 6-year-old, I got justice for Tiffany Eunick, for the victim in this case. The focus seems to be on someone other than the victim. And I want to bring the focus back to the fact that a little 6-year-old little girl's life has been snuffed out of her in a brutal beating that lasted approximately five minutes.

So justice was done. The grand jury spoke by indicting Lionel Tate for first-degree murder as an adult. The jury in this trial spoke. And the judge spoke that first-degree murder is, in fact, what Lionel Tate did. And he received a sentence based on Florida law for that crime.

BLITZER: Mr. Lewis, one of the analysts suggested both sides were playing -- in effect -- chicken with this young boy's life -- Lionel Tate. How do you respond to that kind of criticism: that you were playing too loose with the facts out there?

LEWIS: Well, again, both sides looked at this case differently. From speaking with the mother -- who ultimately made the decision in this case that this child would go to trial, as opposed to accept that plea bargain -- it was very difficult to send her son to jail for three years when she did not believe honestly that he intended to hurt this little girl. The jurors in this case that have been interviewed don't believe that Lionel intended to kill or to hurt this little girl either. What happened here is a child abuse law that was passed in order to try to protect children from the adults. It's now been turned around, under a very novel felony murder theory, that made it quite easy -- and, quite frankly, painted this jury in a corner of having to convict this little boy of first-degree murder.

BLITZER: And now, Mr. Padowitz, you and the prosecution, you're taking the extraordinary step to ask Governor Jeb Bush to intervene and to reduce the sentence, in effect, to come forward with some sort of clemency. How extraordinary is that?

PADOWITZ: Well, I think it's very extraordinary. We have a brutal murder committed by Lionel Tate. And he should be severely punished for that murder. I offered a plea bargain of three years in a juvenile facility and 10 years of probation repeatedly over the course of the year. And the defense did not take that.

Now that Lionel Tate has been convicted, as a minister of justice -- not just seeking a conviction, but seeking justice -- I believe, and the Broward County State Attorney's Office believes -- that governor can hold a clemency hearing and that we are prepared to aid the governor in deciding what the most appropriate sentence for Lionel Tate for this vicious beating that he did to this little 6-year-old first-grader.

BLITZER: Would you advice the governor to accept that plea agreement, in effect, and reduce the sentence to three years in a juvenile facility?

PADOWITZ: Well, Lionel Tate has now been convicted of first- degree murder. And we've had to listen for 2 1/2 weeks during the jury trial to hear about the mountains of evidence that indicated that this was not child's play or an accident, but was in fact murder.

So I think that the governor can take in everything into consideration concerning the little 6-year-old girl that was beaten to death in this case but also consider Lionel Tate's age at the time that he committed this horrific murder.

BLITZER: Mr. Lewis, how is Lionel Tate doing right now in the aftermath of this decision by the judge?

LEWIS: Well, within an hour of his being sentenced, he was removed from the Broward County jail to a adult facility in Miami where he will be basically held until such time as they can find a place for him. But, as you might imagine, he's very scared. He's very much alone. His mother can't visit him or talk to him by phone. I can't even visit him until Monday.

So, as you can imagine, I'm sure that he's terrified. And, quite frankly, all of us are terrified at what might happen to him in that adult prison.

BLITZER: Mr. Padowitz, we only have a few seconds left. Is it time for the law in Florida -- the state legislature to change the law to give a judge more discretion in this kind of case?

PADOWITZ: Well, I can't speak as an assistant state attorney to that. But as a citizen of the state of Florida, yes, I would agree with you. I think judges need more discretion when sentencing juvenile offenders that have been indicted and charged as an adult. And I believe the criminal justice system can also be changed for juvenile court, to put more teeth in juvenile court, so that more juveniles don't have to be prosecuted as adults.

BLITZER: Ken Padowitz and Jim Lewis, thank you so much to both of you for joining us. I know this has been a difficult day for both of you.

PADOWITZ: Thank you.

BLITZER: And just ahead -- thank you -- President Bush takes a step to keep at least one airline flying, despite unhappy union members. And an announcement about human cloning sparks controversy. We'll have details.


BLITZER: Welcome back.

Let's look at some other stories we're following tonight, beginning with airline travel. Many Americans who are getting ready for spring travel can breathe a sigh of relief. President Bush today blocked a looming strike by Northwest Airline mechanics, who were threatening to walk off the job Monday, crippling service worldwide.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In order to make sure our transportation hubs continue to flourish and we continue to fly, I'm issuing an executive order to protect the flying public in a time when Northwest Airlines and the mechanics are having trouble resolving differences. And they need time to do so. This order that I signed today will prevent any disruption of air service for the next 60 days


(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: President Bush made the comments during a whirlwind tour to gain support for his $1.6 trillion tax cut plan.

On Wall Street, corporate profit warnings and a better-than- expected unemployment report led to a jaw-dropping slide today. The Dow industrials closed down 213 points to 10644. The Nasdaq sank 115 points to 2052, its lowest close since December 1998. Much of the decline followed poor earnings forecasts from leading chipmaker Intel.

Former President Clinton's popularity appears to be following that downward trend. A Gallup poll released today shows Mr. Clinton's popularity has plunged to 39 percent, his lowest level ever, in the wake of his last-minute pardons; 59 percent of those polled had an unfavorable opinion of the former president.

Tonight on the "Leading Edge": An international team of doctors says it will soon attempt to perform the first cloning of humans. There appears to be no shortage of volunteers. Hundreds of infertile couples are said to have asked to participate, despite widespread ethical concerns.

If you're a fisherman or a photographer, or have a hobby that depends on the sun, you can track the sun's movement now on the Internet. A solar calculator that debuted this week can provide the time of solar noon, sunrise or sunset in cities around the world.

Up next, I'll open our "Mailbag" -- lots of reaction to the House passage of the president's tax cut package. And one of you is amazed by what you heard on this program last night.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back.

Time now to open our "Mailbag" -- lots of reaction to the tax cut package passed yesterday by the House of Representatives.

Emmanuel writes this: "Wolf, W.'s tax cut is nothing more than Reaganomics incarnate. And we know what happened. Republicans in the House refused to have a debate over the tax cut, as is customary, because of their fear that if the public gets a better handle of it, they will oppose it."

Betty is more open to the tax cuts, and writes about the proposal to include triggers that would hold back tax cuts if the budget surpluses don't pan out: "Seems to me, if everyone is so hot on the idea of triggers, they should appropriately apply triggers to government spending."

Steve writes this about one e-mail I read last night where a viewer defended guns: "Thank you more than I can say. I never thought I would see any television news network be willing to air the obvious: Guns are used far more often for self-defense or to thwart crimes than they are used to murder."

But this from J.P.: "Our nation needs to understand there is a cost to our present gun policy. That cost is that a few good people will die."

Remember, you can e-mail me at I just might read your comments on the air. And you can sign up for my free daily e- mail previewing our nightly programs by going to our WOLF BLITZER REPORTS Web site. That's at

Please stay with CNN throughout the night. Walter Cronkite is Larry King's guest at the top of the hour. Up next: Greta Van Susteren. She's standing by to tell us what she has -- Greta. GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, "THE POINT": Wolf, cancellations, delays, overbooking, lost bags: Does it sound like your last business trip or perhaps your vacation? Well, that's the airlines. And tonight, we are going to talk about that. Plus, will there be a strike that grounds us all? -- Wolf.

BLITZER: OK, Greta, sounds good.

This note: We had planned to bring you tonight our in-depth piece on the millions of mixed-race Americans, in light of the just- released census. Because of the news today, we will bring you that piece -- we hope -- on Monday. Senator John McCain and Education Secretary Rod Paige will be among my guests Sunday on "LATE EDITION." That's at noon Eastern.

Until then, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.



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