Some now recoil at tough sentencing laws for juvenile criminals after Florida teen’s murder case
By MIKE CLARY
Los Angeles Times
March 20, 2001
Convicted of a brutal murder, Lionel Tate seemed precisely the child that get-tough sentencing laws were designed to punish. Although he was just 12 years old when he beat a young playmate to death, Tate received life in prison without parole.
But barely a week after the boy, now 14, was led in shackles from a courtroom, he has become a symbol for child advocates, state lawmakers and even prosecutors who say the laws are too tough and too inflexible.
Indeed, a criminal case that first gained widespread attention for a novel defense–“pro wrestling made me do it”–has become the focus of a national debate on juvenile crime and punishment.
“We don’t really want what in the abstract we think we want,” said William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “Sentences like these violate international law–and common sense.”
Florida and more than 40 other states have enacted laws in response to residents outraged by the crimes of violent juveniles. California voters last year approved Proposition 21, which permits a prosecutor to try children ages 14 or older as adults if they are charged with murder or serious sex offenses. (A state appeals court struck down that provision; the ruling is being appealed.)
But many experts think that jailing kids with adults–as Florida has done with 74 juveniles currently serving time in state prisons– is to abandon all hope for rehabilitation.
Others question the very notion of trying minors in adult criminal courts. “There is a reason for minimum age requirements for obtaining a driver’s license and admission to a movie: Children are not adults,” Schulz said. “Kids of 14 are not finished products. They are not always accountable for their actions.”
‘All Kinds of People . . . Are Outraged’
Among those who say that opportunities to rehabilitate young criminals are being lost under the strict sentencing laws are several civil rights groups–including the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Action Network.
“All kinds of people around the country are outraged over this,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said Monday before meeting with Tate in a maximum-security juvenile facility.
“Charles Manson can go before a parole board,” Sharpton told about 150 people–including Tate’s mother–who gathered Sunday in a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., park. “Yet a child that was involved in a situation at 12 years old is told he will never see a parole board. You are dealing with a human rights violation.”
Randell Alexander, an expert in child abuse who testified for the prosecution in Tate’s January trial, said the case “could be a jumping-off point for a broader discussion about what to do with people 10 to 15 years old who commit grievous acts.”
At a National Children’s Advocacy Center conference last week, Alexander said that, after a discussion of the Tate case, “Everyone seemed vexed by what to do.”
“Does acknowledging the terrible wrong done by Lionel mean he has to be in jail for the rest of his life?” asked Alexander, a pediatrician at Morehouse College’s school of medicine in Atlanta. “No. But he needs some long-term intervention–maybe 15 or 20 years- -to see if he is able to function as a reasonable, responsible citizen.”
Under Florida’s version of the mandatory sentencing laws passed by most states in the last decade to deal with violent juvenile crime, Broward County Circuit Judge Joel T. Lazarus had nothing to decide once the jury spoke. He ordered Tate to prison, with no chance of parole.
But almost no one–including the mother of Tate’s 6-year-old victim, some jurors and the prosecutor–believes that an adult prison is the appropriate place for an eighth-grader who during his trial spent hours coloring in the names of his wrestling heroes.
In fact, in a rare move endorsed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the state Department of Corrections last week transferred Tate from an isolation cell in a Miami lockup to the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice. Tate now is being housed in a high-risk juvenile- offender facility north of Lake Okeechobee while his attorney, Jim Lewis, prepares to appeal the verdict and ask for a clemency hearing.
Bush also has said he would expedite a clemency hearing. Tate’s first-degree murder sentence could be reduced by a majority vote of a panel that includes Bush and six elected Cabinet officials.
Legislators Look at Laws’ Flexibility
Meanwhile, Florida legislators have begun to wrangle with the notion that laws passed in the last decade to deal with violent youngsters may not be flexible enough.
“We make no apologies for the sentencing. These crimes are heinous,” said Jeanne Howard, a Palm Beach County prosecutor who testified last week in Tallahassee, Fla., during a state Senate hearing on a bill that would keep youngsters away from adult inmates. “But when they are 13, 14 years old, we want to make sure they are housed with people their age–unless they become disruptive or until they turn 18.”
Jeffrey A. Butts, a senior researcher with the nonpartisan Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., said that the desire of residents and lawmakers to punish young criminals has outpaced the ability of the courts and the prisons to handle them. “Criminal-court transfer is always popular because the adult system offers a more potent symbol of crime control than does the juvenile court,” Butts said.
Although tall and heavyset, Tate was an immature preteen in 1999 when he killed Tiffany Eunick, Lewis said. Tate and Tiffany were “playing wrestling,” Lewis told jurors, when the boy accidentally fractured her skull and caused 30 other injuries–including a lacerated liver and broken rib.
Prosecutor Ken Padowitz argued that Tiffany’s death was no accident. “This was a savage, brutal beating,” he said, which lasted for five minutes or more. Although Tate, at 166 pounds, may not have intended to kill his 48-pound playmate, Padowitz said, he did intend to hurt her.
Although the verdict, and the decision to try Tate as an adult, were correct, Padowitz said, the sentence is not. Before the January trial began, he repeatedly offered Lewis and Tate’s mother, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, a plea bargain that would have sent Tate to a juvenile facility for three years. The offer was rejected.
Now, Padowitz said, he will support an appeal for clemency or a commutation of Tate’s sentence.
“If prosecuted as a juvenile under Florida’s system, he would have stayed six to nine months in detention,” Padowitz said. “I didn’t think that was appropriate. But although this was a vicious, horrendous murder, I think the defendant’s age at the time of the crime should be taken into account.
“In the end, the appropriate sentence should be something less than what the law prescribes.”