Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Judge Delays Robbery Trial for Lionel Tate

The Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE - The robbery trial of Lionel Tate, once sentenced to life in prison for killing a girl when he was 12, was delayed several months Monday after defense lawyers said they have evidence that proves Tate did not hold up a pizza delivery man.

Tate lawyer Jim Lewis said DNA taken from the mask allegedly used in the 2005 robbery belongs to another man. A new witness also claims Tate never committed the robbery and never carried the gun, Lewis said.

"There's great doubt to how and who committed this robbery," Lewis said.

The trial had been set to begin Monday, but the judge rescheduled it for Sept. 4 at the request of the defense and prosecutors.

Tate initially pleaded guilty to robbery and gun possession in the holdup in return for a sentence of between 10 and 30 years. He withdrew the plea in the robbery but was sentenced to 30 years on the gun charge.

Lewis asked the judge to overturn the gun possession charge, claiming that Tate's former lawyer was incompetent.

Tate, 20, refused a plea deal that would have given him a 30-year total sentence for both charges in the holdup. A conviction on the robbery charges could add a life sentence to his existing sentence.

Prosecutor Chuck Morton declined to comment on the case.

Tate was convicted in the 1999 murder of 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick, and became the youngest person in modern U.S. history to get a life prison term before an appeals court intervened. Lawyers initially claimed that Tiffany, who suffered skull fractures and a lacerated liver, was accidentally killed when Tate, then 12, imitated pro wrestling moves he'd seen on television.

Tate said little in Monday's brief hearing except to answer the judge's questions.

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, but later returned, forcing his way inside, authorities said.

The Domino's delivery man, Walter E. Gallardo, told police 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. 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 also identified the suspect as Tate, but later said a man identified only as "Willie" did it.

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