While most 14-year-olds have the rest of
their lives to look forward to, Lionel Tate will
be spending the rest of his in prison.
Unlike most boys his age, Tate was convicted
of first-degree murder after imitating
professional wrestling moves led to the death of
his 6-year-old friend, Tiffany Eunick.
Following a state law that requires convicted
first-degree murderers to receive a life
sentence without parole, Judge Joel T. Lazarus
handed the sentence to the teen — prompting a
national public outcry that the sentence was too
harsh given the defendant's age.
Lazarus defended his decision in court
documents, charging that none of his critics was
"privy to the horrific facts brought out during
that trial; not one person sat through the
pathetic testimony of the results of Lionel
Tate's deeds upon the body of Tiffany Eunick."
Television viewers will have an opportunity
to watch the trial when Court TV airs the
proceedings every weekday from April 27 to May
According to the defendant and his mother,
Eunick's death was an accident and the result of
rough play. While the case is being appealed and
his defense team is considering asking Gov. Jeb
Bush for clemency, Tate continues to serve his
This controversial situation, with its
bizarre legal angles and strong torrents of
emotion, all began on July 28, 1999 when Florida
highway patrol trooper Kathleen Grossett-Tate
picked up Tiffany Eunick and brought her home. A
long-time friend of the girl's mother — the two
grew up near each other in Jamaica — the officer
had agreed to look after Eunick that evening.
This was hardly unusual. Eunick had come over
before in similar circumstances, and played with
Grossett-Tate's son Lionel without incident.
After cooking the two children dinner and
parking them in front of the television,
Grossett-Tate decided to go upstairs. Shortly
after 10 P.M., the kids playing grew loud enough
to cause the single mother to yell down the
stairwell for them to settle down. But whatever
annoyance Grossett-Tate might have felt
immediately disappeared, to be replaced by
horror and confusion, when 40 minutes later her
son informed her that Eunick had stopped
|Kathleen Grossett-Tate (Court
Tate claimed that he put Eunick in a headlock
and banged her head on a black lacquer table,
but a grand jury investigating the case wasn't
so sure. The medical examiner's report turned up
a host of internal injuries that hadn't been
immediately recognizable by investigators. A
part of the young girl's liver had even become
detached, sparking speculation that Tate's blows
had been much more brutal.
When Tate was indicted for the murder as an
adult, two aspects of the case helped it garner
nationwide attention — the age of the suspect
and the bizarre, wrestling-related defense his
attorneys were preparing.
Tate lawyer Jim Lewis claimed that the boy
killed Eunick accidentally because he was not
mature enough to understand that professional
wrestling is staged. Early he in the case the
defense also made an unsuccessful attempt to get
several famous wrestlers to testify at the
trial. Judge Lazarus agreed that wrestling elder
statesman Hulk Hogan and young stars The Rock
and The Sting could not be forced to participate
against their wishes.
After a series of pre-trial motions, the
judge decided that Lewis could use a limited
form of the wrestling defense — the lawyer could
show wrestling videos to jurors, and both sides
could produce witnesses to address the effects
that televised violence has on children.
|Judge Joel Lazarus (Court TV)
In the week-long trial, the two sides battled
back and forth about the effect of wrestling on
the young child's mind. While the defense called
expert a witness to testify that Tate did not
understand the difference between simulated and
actual violence, the prosecution struck back
with a witness of their own who claimed that the
boy was old enough to make such distinctions.
Ultimately, however, the jury seemed to focus
less on the influence of wrestling than on the
shocking violence of the murder. After returning
their verdict on Jan. 25, several jurors spoke
with The Sun-Sentinel.
"The injuries were so extensive we all felt
that wasn't an accident. We had to abide by the
law and the law spelled it out. It wasn't just
wrestling," said juror William Stevenson. With
the conviction, the victim's family said they
favored a life sentence for the teen.
"I'm hoping he gets life for the brutal way
he murdered my daughter," said Mark James,
father of slain Tiffany Eunick, to the South
Florida Sun-Sentinel. "He needs to do the
time for the crime and then he can be
rehabilitated after that in the next life."
But Eunick's family didn't enjoy the support
one might expect — both the man who prosecuted
the young boy and the jury who convicted him
support a reduced sentence.
"Our biggest problem was convicting a child
of an adult crime," jury foreman Elise Schifano
said to the Sun-Sentinel of the jury's
decision. "We had no idea what sentence he would
face." A former police dispatcher, Schifano even
considered attending Tate's sentencing hearing
to speak on Tate's behalf.
Prosecutor Ken Padowitz tried to broker a
deal last year in which Tate would plead guilty
in exchange for a sentence of three years in a
juvenile center, followed by one year of house
arrest, 10 years of probation, various
psychological testing and treatment, and 1,000
hours of community service.