The Youngest Person in America Ever Sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole
In 2001, a then 14-year-old Lionel Tate was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in the death of 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick that had occurred two years prior. He was the youngest person the United States to ever be given that sentence. That's not where this story ends, but let's go back to where it began.
It all started on July 28th, 1999, in Pembroke Park, Florida, when Lionel's mother, Kathleen, was asked to watch 6-year-old Tiffany for the evening. Kathleen and Tiffany's mother had grown up together in Jamaica. Lionel Tate was only 12 years old at the time. After dinner, the children were watching TV, and Kathleen decided to go upstairs for the evening. She yelled downstairs for them to quiet down at about 10pm, but did not check on them at that time.
It was around 40 minutes later, at approximately 10:40pm when Lionel Tate went upstairs to get his mother, and told her that little Tiffany Eunick was not breathing.
What Happened & Why? Was it a Brutal Beating, or a Child Imitating Wrestling Moves They Saw on TV?
170 lb. Lionel Tate claims he was simply wrestling with 48 lb. Tiffany before she stopped breathing. He told his mother he had her in a headlock when she smashed her head on the side of a table. He then described her as rolling around on the floor, crying, acting like a baby, and urinating in her pants. He decided to go back to watching TV. When Lionel finally went to get his mother to tell her that the little girl was not breathing, her broken little body was already cold.
A third of his size, Tiffany would have been no match for Lionel, play-fighting or not. The question is, was Lionel simply a violent child that had attacked the little girl, or was he just a kid who had tried to imitate the wrestling moves he saw on TV, without realizing how dangerous they were?
Some experts say no, there is absolutely no way that this was simply a kid imitating some wrestling moves. This was an absolutely brutal beating, one that left poor Tiffany with 35 injuries. Tiffany had a cracked skull, a broken rib, a lacerated liver, hemorrhaged kidneys, bleeding in her brain, and dozens of bruises on her little body. This was a brutal beating that lasted for approximately five minutes and was equal in force to a fall from a 3-story building, a child abuse expert would later testify.
Why did this happen? Was this preventable? Were there warning signs? Lionel Tate had a previous history of trouble. Described as an intelligent boy of average IQ with street smarts, this was not the first time that Lionel had shown a problem with violence. Prior to the murder, he had been suspended from school 15 times. He had also exhibited other behavioral problems, including stealing, lying, and fighting. Does part of the blame then fall on his mother for ignoring her son's previous behavior, and leaving him alone with a 6-year-old child?
Read More From Soapboxie
News Report About the Call for Leniecy After Lionel's Sentencing
Larry King Live on Appealing for Clemency in the Lionel Tate Case
The Trial, Verdict, Sentencing & Aftermath
In 2001, Lionel Tate went on trial for Tiffany Eunick's death. It was determined that he would be tried as an adult for first-degree murder. The prosecution did not believe that there was intent or premeditation in Tiffany's murder, but the case still fell under felony murder, because it was the result of aggravated child abuse.
The prosecution offered Tate a plea deal to the lesser charge of 2nd degree murder, for which he would serve a 3 year prison term. Tate and his mother Kathleen turned down the deal, and instead chose to plead innocent to first-degree murder, in hopes of getting an acquittal. The defense argued that the death was completely accidental, and that Lionel was just imitating wrestling moves he had seen on TV.
It took the jury two weeks of deliberation to come back with the verdict: guilty of first-degree felony murder. The crime carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without a chance of parole. Tears rolled down Lionel's cheek as he was handcuffed and led out of the courtroom after his sentence was handed down.
After his conviction, many people took up the cause of pleading for leniency in sentencing on Lionel Tate's behalf, including the lawyers who prosecuted him in court. The judge told the prosecution that if they did not believe he should receive a harsh sentence, they should never have charged him with first-degree murder.
Lionel Tate would get a second chance though. In 2003, an appeals court threw out his conviction on the basis that he wasn't given a mental competency hearing prior to his trial. Tate then pleaded guilty to 2nd degree murder, and the state chose not to retry him, but rather gave him the deal he had turned down three years prior. He was credited for the three years already served in a juvenile facility, which was to be followed by a year of house arrest, 10 years probation, 1000 hours of community service, and mandatory counseling. In January of 2004, Lionel walked out jail a free man, aside from a monitoring device attached to his ankle.
Unfortunately, Lionel would not make the most of his 2nd chance. In September of 2004, Lionel was discovered outside his home by police with a knife, which was a violation of his parole. The judge extended his probation to 15 years, and told him that if he was caught in violation again, he would go back to prison.
It wasn't long before Tate would again be trouble, in May of 2005, when he was charged with armed robbery, armed burglary with battery, and violating his parole in connection the robbery of a pizza man at gunpoint. The pizza man identified Lionel Tate as the one who had pointed a gun at him.
Tate claimed to the judge he was hearing voices, and wanted to kill himself, and a psychiatric evaluation was ordered. In the end, he was found competent to stand trial. In May of 2006, he pled guilty to gun possession which violated his probation, and was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment. The judge was somber when he said "In plain English, Lionel Tate, you have run out of second chances" before he laid down his sentence. In February of 2008, he pled no contest to the robbery charge, and was sentenced to 10 years, to be served concurrently with his 30 year sentence.
Tate is currently in prison serving his time, but is now proclaiming his innocence in the pizza robbery case. Tate claims that it was possibly another man who committed the crime, a friend of his who made a statement to police that he had seen Tate commit the robbery.