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Burden of Proof

The Case of Lionel Tate: Was Justice Served?

Aired March 14, 2001 - 12:30 p.m. ET



CURTIS RANUM, FACILITY ADMINISTRATOR: He's doing well. He arrived the night before last about 7:00 o'clock, and he was kind of anxious to get to some place with some permanency. But I was kind of impressed with him.


GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: Fourteen- year-old Lionel Tate is secretly moved from an adult prison to a juvenile facility in the dead of night, just as Florida Governor Jeb Bush considers the fate of the boy's case and whether a life sentence should be commuted.

Plus: the Clinton pardon case, why the Justice Department has given a New York prosecutor power to investigate last-minute clemency and pardons granted by the former president.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack.

VAN SUSTEREN: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF..

Lionel Tate, convicted of killing a 6-year-old playmate, claiming he was only imitating pro wrestling moves, has been transferred to a juvenile detention center. Tate was secretly moved Monday night after spending three days in an adult facility. For the time being, he'll be housed with 47 other boys who were convicted of violent crimes.

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Since he was tried as an adult, Tate received a mandatory life sentence for the murder of Tiffany Eunick. Yesterday, Florida Governor Jeb Bush said he will consider speeding up the clemency process on behalf of Tate.

Prisoners are not usually eligible for clemency until they have served two years in prison, but Bush says that guideline has been ignored before.

VAN SUSTEREN: Just a few moments ago, Tate's trial attorney, Jim Lewis, visited his client in a juvenile detention center and joins us now from Okeechobee, Florida.

From New York, we're joined by former federal prosecutor Steve Cohen.

COSSACK: And here in Washington, Stephanie Hepburn (ph), former deputy associate attorney general Jeffrey Harris and law professor Glenn Ivey. In the back, Jenna Clark (ph), Ivy Propatage (ph) and Jeff Nestler (ph).

Jim, let's talk to you. You're down visiting your client. First of all, tell us how Lionel's doing, and why was he transferred?

JIM LEWIS, ATTORNEY FOR LIONEL TATE: Well, obviously, there were concerns about him being in the adult prison in Miami. He's doing as best as one could expect. He's been moved around quite a bit. But he's happy now that he's not in total segregation anymore. He can have some contact with other juveniles, albeit they're quite a bit older than he is. This is certainly a better situation than he was in Miami.

VAN SUSTEREN: Jim, Roger and I have dealt with young clients before, and when they're around 12, 13, 14, there's a big range of whether someone is a young 12, 13, 14 or an old. Can you give us some idea of -- of what Lionel is like, how much savvy he has, how smart he is?

LEWIS: He's not a street-smart kid at all. He's very immature. All the testing shows he probably has the mentality of somewhere between a 9 or a 10-year-old. He's in here with inmates from 16 to 19, inmates convicted of some of the most serious crimes that you would imagine. But this is the best that our government can do with Lionel...

VAN SUSTEREN: Does he...

LEWIS: ... right now. We're very hopeful that a clemency action or appeal action's going to get him out of here.

VAN SUSTEREN: Does he get or does he understand that this is life? Does he -- does he realize what his sentence is?

LEWIS: It's -- we -- I think it's starting to sink in, that he realized that he's not -- you know, he was really worried about he was not going to be able to graduate from his -- from his 8th-grade class this year. That's one of his concerns. So does he really understand the -- the gravity of it? I don't think so.

COSSACK: Jim, what's the -- what's -- where are you in the process of seeing if you can get some kind of clemency from Governor Bush in Florida? Is that -- is that a realistic hope?

LEWIS: Well, it's certainly one that we're going to look at. We're putting the bulk of our faith, though, in the appeal because we don't believe that this child got a fair trial. We think that the judge in this case unfairly limited our defense, which was this child was simply imitating what he saw on television, that being professional wrestling. But if we're not successful with that appeal, then naturally, we're going to turn to Governor Bush. He's indicated that he would look at this case sooner rather than later. But, unfortunately, it's a pretty complicated process. We're going to have to go out and try to hire some experts. The money is -- the mother is out trying to raise money, selling her jewelry, things of that nature, in order to raise those funds. But hopefully, we're going to be ready...

COSSACK: Jim, how...

LEWIS: ... in June, when the hearing is set.

COSSACK: How was your defense limited? Were you -- weren't you allowed to put that defense in front of the jury?

LEWIS: Not at all. We were not allowed to put on psychologists from around the country who could back up the data that many children who act out this way are simply imitating what they see in media violence. The judge did not allow any of that testimony. It was a very constricting type of argument, and I think...

COSSACK: But you were able to...

LEWIS: ... quite frankly, the appellate court...


COSSACK: Jim, you were able to -- Jim, you were able to get in front of the jury, though, that Lionel thought he was acting out, weren't you?

LEWIS: Well, yes, but -- but without being able to back that up with the data and the research from psychological testing to show that, in fact, many children do this and that many kids around the country have been hurt from imitating what they see on television. I think it would have made all the difference in the world.

VAN SUSTEREN: Jim, I mean, I get an awful lot of e-mails on this case, and a lot of people are expressing, like, what about Tiffany, the young girl who was murdered? What do you say to those people when they say, "Well, all the attention now is on Lionel. He got life, but you have a dead child"?

LEWIS: You know, this is a horrible tragedy for everyone, and you can't help to grieve for the parents of Tiffany and Tiffany herself. But the bottom line is it doesn't help to make two tragedies out of one. Unfortunately, there's nothing that any of us can do to help Tiffany right now. The only thing that we can do -- Lionel's mother, the defense team, everybody -- is to try to help Lionel. And I don't mean help him to the extent of make things great for him.

But certainly he doesn't belong in prison for life. And I don't think, quite frankly, he even belongs in a maximum-security juvenile center like what you see here. This place has barbed wire. They never leave these walls. He's in an 8-by-8 cell for a good part of the day. He's totally isolated from his family and his friends. This is no picnic for this kid here. COSSACK: All right, let's take a break. When we come back, let's change on our docket. Has the Justice Department given carte blanche investigative power to a New York prosecutor?

Don't go away.


On this day in 1950, the FBI instituted the 10 Most Wanted Fugitives" list in an attempt to publicize dangerous fugitives. In its first 48 years, 454 fugitives appeared on the list; 130 have been captured.






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