Tate case gives hope to young murderers

Child advocates wonder if Florida's tough stance on young killers is softening.

Published: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 2:52 a.m.
WEST PALM BEACH - A boy who was 12 when he kicked and stomped a playmate to death will be released from prison by the end of the month after an appeals court ruled he was too young to understand the complicated legal proceedings against him.
Child advocates hope the ruling provides leverage to help other young killers, who are often locked away for decades or longer under the strict justice system in Florida and other states.
The case of Lionel Tate has drawn worldwide scrutiny since his murder conviction and automatic life sentence in 2001. Now that his punishment has been thrown out, the case provides new hope to other young killers and their supporters, who are left wondering whether the state's tough stance on juvenile crime could be softening.
Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist insists that a person, regardless of age, who commits a murder deserves a stiff punishment. But he says each case needs to be looked at individually.
In Tate's case, Crist and prosecutors credit the victim's mother, Deweese Eunick-Paul, for the leniency. She agreed to a plea bargain allowing Tate to serve three years in prison and 10 years of probation.
Tate beat 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick so severely she suffered a fractured skull, lacerated liver, broken rib, internal hemorrhaging and cuts and bruises. Even experts for the defense said Tate's claim at trial that he was imitating pro wrestling moves could not account for all of the girl's injuries.
While appellate judges recognized Tate could not have been "play fighting," they ruled his competency should have been evaluated because of his young age and lack of previous experience with the court system.
Karen Kaneer, whose daughter was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for a crime committed when she was 15, said the legal system is too quick to take on juvenile cases and makes no attempt to help the young defendants adjust to a system built for adults.
"She had no idea what was going on. She basically did what her attorneys told her to do. She signed away her right to a speedy trial, which caused her to be in isolation at the Bay County jail for 17 months," said Kaneer, who went with Tate's mother to Rome to ask the pope for help in their cases.
Kaneer's now 22-year-old daughter, Rebecca Falcon, was convicted for the 1997 robbery-murder of a cab driver in Callaway, a Panama City suburb. She is the only juvenile girl to be given a life sentence in Florida.
Kaneer said when an appellate court rejected Falcon's appeal when she was 17, Kaneer kept the decision from her daughter, so she would not lose hope.
"She found out when she was 18, when she finally started understanding the legal process and started asking about an appeal," Kaneer said. "I just don't think she had enough maturity level to understand what she was facing. She was just way too immature."
Kathleen Heide, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida and author who has studied more than 100 juvenile murderers, says the adult punishments doled out to children ignore that they could be rehabilitated and redeemed.
"For an advanced society as we are, to put literally millions and millions of dollars into warehousing kids for the rest of their lives is a very extreme and very backward way of looking things," Heide said. "We could take a fraction of that money and put it first into prevention, and for those who make mistakes, put it into treatment and rehabilitation."
She said Tate's case will bring some needed attention to a criminal justice system that has long been criticized for its handling of minors.
"The beauty of the case is it really talks about issues of justice and fairness in dealing with young children and looking at what we as a society can do early on to help these children," Heide said.
State Sen. Steven Geller of Hallandale Beach has used the Tate case to call attention to his bill that would allow young killers with no felony convictions to be eligible for parole after eight years. Though the Democrat faces a tough challenge in a GOP-led Legislature, he believes his bill is a moderate proposal that would protect children from being imprisoned for life, but also would not set them free in just a couple of years.
Republicans have raised concerns about the proposal. State Sen. Victor Crist, a regular defender of Florida's tough juvenile laws, has said that the behavior of violent children cannot be corrected.
But Crist, a Tampa Republican, has said he supports rehabilitation programs for the majority of youths who can be rehabilitated.
Despite the 4th District Court of Appeal's reversal of Tate's conviction, the court stood by the issue of prosecuting juveniles as adults. Just seven months before releasing the Tate decision, the court upheld the second-degree murder conviction of Nathaniel Brazill, who was 13 when he brought a gun to his middle school and shot a teacher to death. Brazill was sentenced to 28 years in prison.
"It is not unreasonable for the legislature to treat children who commit serious crimes as adults in order to protect societal goals," judges wrote.
The decision further bolstered its stance, adding, "Florida courts have long recognized that there is no absolute right requiring children to be treated in a special system for juvenile offenders."
Still, judges are using discretion when sentencing children convicted of crimes less severe than first-degree murder, which requires a life sentence.
Earlier this year, two brothers, who were 12 and 13 when they beat their sleeping father to death with a baseball bat, were convicted for second-degree murder in Pensacola.
But the judge threw out the boys' convictions and ordered mediation that resulted in both pleading guilty to third-degree murder. Alex King, now 14, is serving seven years and Derek King, now 15, received eight years.
"When the public screams to the Legislature to get tough on crime, they can't possibly see all of the ramifications," said Sharon Potter, an attorney who represented Derek King and now represents a 13-year-old girl charged with killing a friend. "There are those who say if they commit an adult crime, they should do adult time, without considering that they have the mentality of a child."
Jane Culpepper, whose son Dominic Culpepper is serving a life sentence, says eventually, the state has to realize its mistakes. Dominic was 14 when he fatally beat 16-year-old Frank Wesley McCool with a baseball bat in retaliation for stealing marijuana in Sarasota County.
"A mistake shouldn't create a life sentence. Everybody, especially children, make mistakes and they deserve a second chance," Culpepper said.

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