Teen in'Wrestling Death' Near Release - KTRE.com | Lufkin and Nacogdoches, Texas

01/26/04 - Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Teen in'Wrestling Death' Near Release

The teen whose life sentence for murdering a playmate was thrown out because his mental competency was not evaluated before trial will be allowed to go free Monday, a judge ruled.

Circuit Judge Joel Lazarus, who imposed the life sentence after trial, ordered Lionel Tate released without bond. It was expected to take a few hours to complete jail paperwork for his release. Tate, now 16, will have to wear an electronic monitoring device.

After the hearing, Tate gave his mother a faint smile and she put her arm around him.

Supporters worldwide rallied to free Tate since he was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of 6-year-old playmate Tiffany Eunick in 1999. Tate was 12 at the time of the death; the first-degree murder conviction carried an automatic sentence of life without the possibility of parole. He became the nation's youngest defendant sentenced to life in prison.

After meeting with a psychologist who will test his mental competence, Tate is to appear at another hearing Thursday, when he is expected to plead guilty to second-degree murder and be sentenced to three years.

Tate will be credited for the three years he has already served in jail and at a maximum-security juvenile prison.

Prosecutors offered him the deal last month after an appeals court threw out his original conviction. The plea deal is identical to the one the boy and his family rejected before his trial.

The appeals panel ruled his mental competency should have been evaluated to make sure he understood what was at stake at his trial. They pointed to Tate's apparent immaturity and his failure to accept the plea deal.

Tate's attorney, Richard Rosenbaum, who won the appeal after taking on the case for free, said before Monday's hearing that Tate is "anxious" but his spirits are improved.

"I'm getting smiles now and then," Rosenbaum said.

Along with the three years he has already served, Tate is to be sentenced to 10 years' probation, a year of house arrest and 1,000 hours of community service. He will receive mandatory counseling and will continue his education with the support of his mother, mentors and community and church groups.

Autopsy reports showed the girl was beaten to death, suffering a lacerated liver and at least 35 other injuries.

Tate originally said he accidentally killed her while imitating professional wrestling moves he had seen on television. He now says he leapt from a staircase and accidentally landed on her chest.

Tiffany's mother, Deweese Eunick-Paul, said Friday she is not disappointed with Tate's new deal, but said the teenager needs to accept responsibility for murdering her daughter.

Eunick-Paul said Tate's supporters are "making light" of her daughter's death when they say the slaying, which happened while Tate's mother was baby-sitting for the Tiffany, was an accident.

Gov. Jeb Bush had a similar view, saying Monday, "I do hope that Lionel will express remorse, at a minimum, for what occurred."

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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