Sunday, April 15, 2007
Child killer Lionel Tate back on trial for robbery
MIAMI -- Just like when he killed a little girl eight years ago, Lionel Tate wants a trial - even though his lawyers have told him that's a bad idea.
Tate's trial on charges that he robbed a pizza delivery man is scheduled to start Monday. A conviction would add significant time to the 30-year sentence he is serving for violating the probation he eventually received for murdering 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick when he was 12. He violated the probation by possessing a gun.
When charged with Tiffany's slaying, he rejected a plea deal that would have gotten him a three-year sentence and mental health treatment - and became the youngest person in modern U.S. history to get a life prison term before an appeals court intervened. This time he backed out of a plea deal that would have given him no more than 30 years total for robbery and gun possession.
"There's certainly quite a risk involved. Lionel could get life in prison or a consecutive sentence, even though I don't think that would be fair," said his attorney, Jim Lewis. He has filed a motion to have Tate's current sentence vacated on the grounds that one of his former attorneys was incompetent.
That attorney, Ellis Rubin, was one of South Florida's best-known lawyers before his death in December after a long battle with cancer.
Lewis, who also represented Tate at his 2001 murder trial, suffered criticism himself when he claimed then that the then-160 pound Tate killed Tiffany by accident while imitating professional wrestling moves he had seen on TV. His mother, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper now on military leave, was baby-sitting the girl and says she was sleeping in another room. The autopsy showed Tiffany, who weighed 48 pounds, had suffered numerous injuries, including a skull fracture and a severed liver.
Tate's first-degree murder conviction was overturned by an appeals court in 2004 after the panel found it wasn't clear whether Tate had understood the charges against him. He was then freed from prison under a deal in which he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to time served and 10 years' probation.
He has since had numerous encounters with police, been through a string of attorneys, including Rubin, and taken bad advice from jailhouse lawyers.
A judge sentenced Tate to an additional five years probation for possessing a knife in 2004 after he was found walking the streets early in the morning as a hurricane bore down on South Florida. A year later he was arrested on the robbery charge.
According to authorities, a 12-year-old neighbor said that he allowed Tate, then 18, to use the telephone in his apartment to call for a pizza delivery. Tate then left, returning a short time later and forcing his way inside by shoving the boy out of the way.
The delivery man, Walter E. Gallardo, told police that the door was open when he arrived at the apartment with four pizzas. As he entered, he saw someone with a gun that appeared to be a .38-caliber revolver.
Gallardo told detectives he "threw the pizzas and fled out the door," was chased by the gunman and fell, losing both his glasses and his cell phone. The delivery man returned to the apartment complex with sheriff's deputies, saw Tate in the area and identified him as the suspect, police said. No gun was recovered.
The neighbor boy also identified the suspect as Tate. He was arrested and later pleaded guilty to robbery and gun possession in return for a sentence of between 10 and 30 years - and then withdrew it. So he got 30 years for violating probation instead, as he had admitted possessing a gun.
While in custody, he was charged with criminal mischief for an altercation in jail.
Last year, Circuit Judge Joel T. Lazarus ruled for the second time that Tate was competent to face the robbery charge after Tate claimed he was mentally ill from years of abuse by his mother. He had previously claimed he was hearing voices and contemplating suicide. He later admitted it was a ruse and a ploy another inmate advised.
Lewis has also filed a change of venue motion, saying it will be difficult to find a Broward jury that hasn't heard about the case because of the media coverage.
A spokeswoman from prosecutor Chuck Morton's office said they do not comment on pending cases.
Tate, who has spent much of his youth in jail, has had difficulty adjusting to prison life, especially because everyone knows his name, Lewis said. Tate was recently relocated for that reason.
"I wish that things had worked out differently for Lionel," Lewis said. "This whole thing is very gut wrenching for the people involved. There's a lot of people still out there who want to help him."