Tate officially free after plea
Published: Friday, January 30, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 30, 2004 at 1:02 a.m.
FORT LAUDERDALE - Lionel Tate pleaded guilty on Thursday to second-degree murder in the death of a 6-year-old playmate, completing a deal with prosecutors in a case that stirred national debate over Florida's treatment of juvenile criminals.
Tate, who was 12 when he fatally beat Tiffany Eunick almost five years ago, declined to speak but offered through his attorney to meet with the girl's mother. He originally claimed he killed the girl while imitating professional wrestling moves he'd seen on television. He now says he leaped from the staircase and accidentally landed on the girl.
Before the plea, Tiffany's mother told the court that her strong faith led her to forgiveness, but she offered a stinging rebuke of Tate and his mother, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Kathleen Grossett-Tate. Grossett-Tate was baby-sitting Tiffany at her Pembroke Park home and says she was napping upstairs, leaving the girl downstairs with her son.
"I firmly believe in God and I believe in forgiveness. I so much believe in God and for that I have forgiven you, Lionel," Deweese Eunick-Paul said. "I have forgiven Lionel for brutally murdering my daughter."
She agreed to his release, but had wanted him to publicly acknowledge that her daughter's death was not an accident - the girl suffered a fractured skull, a split liver and at least 35 other injuries.
In court, she criticized Tate's mother for "deception," accused her of trying to hide evidence and of "hiding behind" groups that have taken up his cause.
"Kathleen can hide from behind her badge, the lawyers, the ministers, the Nation of Islam but you cannot hide from the truth," Eunick-Paul said. "This was not child's play. . . .This was not roughhousing. This was a brutal murder."
The last conversation Eunick-Paul said she remembers having with Tate was when he came over to her house, a few days after her daughter's death, to "ask me for Tiffany's toys since Tiffany was dead."
Tate, who turns 17 today, said only "yes, sir" and "no, sir" in responses to routine questions from the judge before his plea. He had been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2001, but an appellate court threw out his conviction last month, ruling that he might not have understood the criminal proceedings against him four years ago. The case was sent back to the trial court.
That resulted in prosecutors renewing an offer they had made before his trial - plead guilty to second-degree murder and accept a three-year sentence, which by now he has already served in jail and at a maximum security juvenile prison.
Tate's attorney, Richard Rosenbaum, told the court that his client was remorseful and had looked at Tiffany's photograph earlier on Thursday.
"By entering the guilty plea, Lionel has accepted the responsibility for Tiffany's death," he said.
Eunick-Paul told reporters after the hearing "it would have been great" if he apologized, but she didn't have "any great expectations."
"All I wanted was just for Lionel to come forward and say, 'I'm sorry for killing your daughter,' " she said.
Grossett-Tate said later: "This is not the day for me to respond to Deweese or to bash Deweese because I know she's grieving as much as I am . . . It doesn't matter what they said in there today, I've done what I could as a mother and any mother who would fight for her child."
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