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Appeals Ruling Reverses Life Sentence in Murder Case of 14-Year-Old US Teen - 2004-01-26


The youngest person in the United States ever sentenced to life in prison was ordered set free on Monday.

In 1999 12-year-old Lionel Tate killed his six-year-old playmate Tiffany Eunick. Autopsy reports indicated the little girl had been beaten to death receiving at least 35 blows, in what police described at the time as one of the most brutal killings they had ever seen in Broward County, just north of the city of Miami.

At his trial, Lionel Tate, a young African American boy who psychologists said suffered from a low IQ, said he accidentally killed Tiffany Eunick while imitating wrestling movies. In later testimony he said he had leaped from a staircase and landed on the young girls chest. Prosecutors charged him with first degree murder which carries a mandatory life sentence without parole upon conviction.

When he was found guilty at the age of 14 Lionel Tate became the youngest defendant ever sentenced to life in prison in modern U.S. history.

The case shocked many in the legal community and appeals began almost immediately. Last month an appeals court granted Lionel Tate a new trial, ruling that his mental competency should have been evaluated at the time of his trial. The court ruled Lionel Tate clearly did not understand the implications of pleading not guilty in a first-degree murder trial, where he faced mandatory life imprisonment if convicted.

Shortly after the appellate ruling, prosecutors reached an agreement with the boy's lawyers that will allow him to plead guilty to second-degree murder and serve out the time he has already spent in prison. The deal is similar to one the Tate family initially rejected at the time of his first trial.

Speaking to reporters outside the Ft. Lauderdale courthouse, De Weese Eunick, the mother of Tiffany Eunick, says she accepts the deal, but would like Lionel Tate to take more responsibility for the death of her daughter.

"You cannot change the fact that it is a murder," she said. "All these people, the jury, the judge, the appellate court, everybody saw it for what it was. For some reason they are still in a dreamland, calling it an accident."

After an assessment by psychologists, Lionel Tate is scheduled for another hearing on Thursday where he will plead guilty and be sentenced to the three years he already served. He will also have to serve 10 years probation, a year of house arrest and serve 1,000 hours of community service as well as attend mandatory counseling sessions for years to come.

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