The Youngest Person in America Ever Sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole
In 2001, a then 14-year-old Lionel Tate was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in the death of 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick that had occurred two years prior. He was the youngest person the United States to ever be given that sentence. That's not where this story ends, but let's go back to where it began.
It all started on July 28th, 1999, in Pembroke Park, Florida, when Lionel's mother, Kathleen, was asked to watch 6-year-old Tiffany for the evening. Kathleen and Tiffany's mother had grown up together in Jamaica. Lionel Tate was only 12 years old at the time. After dinner, the children were watching TV, and Kathleen decided to go upstairs for the evening. She yelled downstairs for them to quiet down at about 10pm, but did not check on them at that time.
It was around 40 minutes later, at approximately 10:40pm when Lionel Tate went upstairs to get his mother, and told her that little Tiffany Eunick was not breathing.
What Happened & Why? Was it a Brutal Beating, or a Child Imitating Wrestling Moves They Saw on TV?
170 lb. Lionel Tate claims he was simply wrestling with 48 lb. Tiffany before she stopped breathing. He told his mother he had her in a headlock when she smashed her head on the side of a table. He then described her as rolling around on the floor, crying, acting like a baby, and urinating in her pants. He decided to go back to watching TV. When Lionel finally went to get his mother to tell her that the little girl was not breathing, her broken little body was already cold.
A third of his size, Tiffany would have been no match for Lionel, play-fighting or not. The question is, was Lionel simply a violent child that had attacked the little girl, or was he just a kid who had tried to imitate the wrestling moves he saw on TV, without realizing how dangerous they were?
Some experts say no, there is absolutely no way that this was simply a kid imitating some wrestling moves. This was an absolutely brutal beating, one that left poor Tiffany with 35 injuries. Tiffany had a cracked skull, a broken rib, a lacerated liver, hemorrhaged kidneys, bleeding in her brain, and dozens of bruises on her little body. This was a brutal beating that lasted for approximately five minutes and was equal in force to a fall from a 3-story building, a child abuse expert would later testify.
Why did this happen? Was this preventable? Were there warning signs? Lionel Tate had a previous history of trouble. Described as an intelligent boy of average IQ with street smarts, this was not the first time that Lionel had shown a problem with violence. Prior to the murder, he had been suspended from school 15 times. He had also exhibited other behavioral problems, including stealing, lying, and fighting. Does part of the blame then fall on his mother for ignoring her son's previous behavior, and leaving him alone with a 6-year-old child?
News Report About the Call for Leniecy After Lionel's Sentencing
Larry King Live on Appealing for Clemency in the Lionel Tate Case
The Trial, Verdict, Sentencing & Aftermath
In 2001, Lionel Tate went on trial for Tiffany Eunick's death. It was determined that he would be tried as an adult for first-degree murder. The prosecution did not believe that there was intent or premeditation in Tiffany's murder, but the case still fell under felony murder, because it was the result of aggravated child abuse.
The prosecution offered Tate a plea deal to the lesser charge of 2nd degree murder, for which he would serve a 3 year prison term. Tate and his mother Kathleen turned down the deal, and instead chose to plead innocent to first-degree murder, in hopes of getting an acquittal. The defense argued that the death was completely accidental, and that Lionel was just imitating wrestling moves he had seen on TV.
It took the jury two weeks of deliberation to come back with the verdict: guilty of first-degree felony murder. The crime carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without a chance of parole. Tears rolled down Lionel's cheek as he was handcuffed and led out of the courtroom after his sentence was handed down.
After his conviction, many people took up the cause of pleading for leniency in sentencing on Lionel Tate's behalf, including the lawyers who prosecuted him in court. The judge told the prosecution that if they did not believe he should receive a harsh sentence, they should never have charged him with first-degree murder.
Lionel Tate would get a second chance though. In 2003, an appeals court threw out his conviction on the basis that he wasn't given a mental competency hearing prior to his trial. Tate then pleaded guilty to 2nd degree murder, and the state chose not to retry him, but rather gave him the deal he had turned down three years prior. He was credited for the three years already served in a juvenile facility, which was to be followed by a year of house arrest, 10 years probation, 1000 hours of community service, and mandatory counseling. In January of 2004, Lionel walked out jail a free man, aside from a monitoring device attached to his ankle.
Unfortunately, Lionel would not make the most of his 2nd chance. In September of 2004, Lionel was discovered outside his home by police with a knife, which was a violation of his parole. The judge extended his probation to 15 years, and told him that if he was caught in violation again, he would go back to prison.
It wasn't long before Tate would again be trouble, in May of 2005, when he was charged with armed robbery, armed burglary with battery, and violating his parole in connection the robbery of a pizza man at gunpoint. The pizza man identified Lionel Tate as the one who had pointed a gun at him.
Tate claimed to the judge he was hearing voices, and wanted to kill himself, and a psychiatric evaluation was ordered. In the end, he was found competent to stand trial. In May of 2006, he pled guilty to gun possession which violated his probation, and was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment. The judge was somber when he said "In plain English, Lionel Tate, you have run out of second chances" before he laid down his sentence. In February of 2008, he pled no contest to the robbery charge, and was sentenced to 10 years, to be served concurrently with his 30 year sentence.
Tate is currently in prison serving his time, but is now proclaiming his innocence in the pizza robbery case. Tate claims that it was possibly another man who committed the crime, a friend of his who made a statement to police that he had seen Tate commit the robbery.
Imome on September 21, 2019:
I think that he shouldn't have done that because I jus
t did that but she didn't get hurt
Jon Dickinson on May 10, 2019:
Likely schizophrenic. Needed medication. Too late now
Jelly on April 11, 2019:
I am a great aunt and a mother of nature
me on March 13, 2019:
i think that Tate deserved what he got, but that his mother should also take some blame as well. she is the one who left them alone.
Emma Matheny on October 08, 2018:
Ok so, just a thought. But, what if the voice he heard was little Tiffany. Except now, she was aged. And he was having a guilty conscience and made her up in his head, as a way to like forgive himself. So, afterwards as a way i don't know, coping? he made himself think she wanted him to kill himself, and he was in the process. idk... may be stupid but we never know.
optimusHerb on August 22, 2018:
@natridamus : um....what school shooter(s) who’s killed multiple people did not serve prison time? Pretty sure they’re all dead, or serving big time sentences.
Accident or no, jail time was justified with Lionel Tate. A life sentence with no parole was too harsh, but the three years he served is definitely fair.
You complain about white people getting lax sentences for being mentally unfit to stand trial, yet Tate had his sentence commuted big time because he was not given a psych evaluation before his trial. It seems to me that the psych evaluation helped Tate immensely with gaining his freedom back.
His life was not over when he was convicted; plenty of people, children included, serve three years of prison time and go on to live productive, successful lives. He chose to not live a productive life when given a second chance (and third chance), and that is on nobody but himself. You are a silly, misguided enabler.
People absolutely deserve to serve prison time for “accidents,” depending on the severity of said accident. Prisons aren’t just for people who commit crimes intentionally, it’s for people who commit crimes. Manslaughter, DUI, etc., can be accidents, but they fully deserve jail time.
I'mjustsaying on June 14, 2018:
Everybody commenting on the problem but not being apart of the solution. It takes a village to raise a child.
nanci on April 29, 2018:
he was born wicked, and his mother didnt see the need to make him follow rules, and learn some respect and manners. I dont understand why the girl's mother didnt see that lionel was evil.
Onemoretime on March 22, 2018:
His mother was neglectful of both Lionel and Tiffany. You can't tell me that Tiffany wasn't screaming in pain. His mother should be in prison also.
firstname.lastname@example.org on March 20, 2018:
We have to remember that the alphabet goes A,B,C,D not A,D,C,B. We have to start with A, and A is that he should have never seen any time in jail for an ACCIDENT. B, is the fact that he served over 3 years in a CONFINED facility that MENTALLY damaged him. C, is a mentally damaged CHILD at an ADULT age has been released from kiddie jail and D, which are the other charges is the result of A,B and C. Now if A,B and C never happened D wouldn't have happened. Or should we talk about the other skinned children who INTENTIONALLY MURDER by running in schools and killing not 1 but 10 or more who gets the "Mental" status and see no jail time but are placed on medications because after performing a PSYCH test, it becomes determined that they weren't loved enough, they used to get abused, boo whoo cry me a river, everyone has a story to tell and still don't go on a murdering spree. As soon as this young boy was convicted his life was over. How do you come back from that? Just like being in the military, not everyone adjust and come back screwed up in the head from what they experienced and just like this young boy who never experienced being confined like an animal, went in one way and came out another. The Judge, Prosecutor and Jury is the blame for the MAN they created out of that CHILD!
Justice for victims on January 23, 2018:
Well I see it as he should have not done what he did
Eunice on January 15, 2018:
Only a sick person or people and cowards would sent children to life in prison.
Angela on November 09, 2017:
Yea he's a manipulative p.o.s who should've NEVER got a second chance let alone a third change wtf talk about a loss cause
Donovan on October 21, 2017:
For you people saying he was young innocent and needed help. How about the handful of violent crimes after his chance out of life sentence managed to get him measly house arrest. This boy didn't even get the life sentence you all think he did, they used a loophole for infant brain development saying he couldn't know what he was doing. He sure knew what he was doing later on when he used his amazing miracle chance to rob 4 measly pizzas with a gun (armed robbery). Also knew what he was doing when he beat the living hell out of the "friend" who was allowing him into his apartment at the same time as the armed robbery. Plus pretty sure he knew damn well when he was walking around in public with a 8-10 inch blade on him for no apparent reason other than he was probably prepared to use it. The kid deserved life to begin with and should've never seen the light of day in order to keep him from committing these other legitimate crimes and felonies.
cskye on October 09, 2017:
So many of these responses are absolutely ABSURD. Yes we all have the right to our own opinions but my goodness this is a CHILD who needed SUPPORT AND HELP. We need to be more mindful and educate ourselves on how to identify when someone needs help whether they have a mental illness, are in mental distress, have behavioral issues or disabilities that need to be assessed, etc. And we need to do so without stigmatizing them in the process so they feel safe seeking and receiving help that is going to be beneficial to them and to us in the long run. Were such an individualistic society we only care about ourselves and the people in our lives and place blame on others so easily when its not our problem.
Lionel Tate may have been large for his size but he still had the mental capacity of a 12 year old boy. This goes so far beyond the binary of knowing good from bad. Being able to understand if killing or hurting someone is either good or bad is not the same as a 12 year old boy (who may or may not have been struggling with other issues) mentally processing the fact that if he wrestled with someone who was smaller and played too rough for his size that a death or severe injury might occur and he would be held accountable. Once again, if Tate had behavioral issues, like many children at that age do, he should have been assessed and a proper intervention should have been implemented. Was there anyone there to support him? Teachers, family, peers? Did anyone pay attention to this or did they just brush it off (boys will be boys right?..until it results in someones death and all the sudden this particular boy is now labeled a mentally ill monster???) Tate loved to watch wrestling like many kids his age do, its very possible that he did not understand that wrestling was fake or thought that because people seemed to walk away just fine in wrestling even after being inflicted with such violence, that he could do the same. There are also lots of women in wrestling. Maybe he did not fully comprehend gender, age, and size differences in terms of the repercussions or maybe he made an informed decision based on what he saw through wresting. I am in no way justifying violence and what happened to this little girl is absolutely tragic...I just feel as though this was handled terribly.
This boy was set up to fail by a punitive justice system that does NOT rehabilitate people in a productive way and THAT is why recidivism rates are so high and he ended up back in prison for 30 YEARS for violating his parole. Not to mention there have been far worse offenses that have resulted in sentences far less harsh.
This is also a clear issue of institutionalized RACISM lets be real. There are children who have been convicted of absolutely heinous crimes who were not of color and have been given new identities so they don't have to deal with the stigma related to their crime. This is a fact.
This man was not born a monster he was a child and was psychologically traumatized for three years prior to his release. Even if he had mental issues prior to the incident and if it were intentional and non-accidental, there is a huge chance he could have had a successful release had he been rehabilitated in a way that was more appropriate for his age and development. Instead however, his issues were exacerbated through the justice system, he was not able to develop a positive sense of self, self-efficacy, or experiences and skills necessary for healthy cognitive and emotional development. People who automatically assume he is a bad person by nature should really reflect on their biases and why they feel this way. Mental health and behavior is not solely based on biology and that has been proven by endless research studies. Tate was not given the chance to successfully integrate into society he was just thrown in after being publicly scrutinized and placed on display while dealing with the fact that he took a young girls life followed by the notion that his life will never be the same and he will always have this dark cloud over his head for doing something he may not have fully understood at the time. This is too much for anyone to process let alone a child. This however is nothing new. It is how our system oppresses and marginalizes people who have been through the criminal justice system.
Also, no parent is able to keep eyes on their kids 24/7 that is completely unrealistic and if you are that kind of parent then you're probably doing more harm than good. You don't have to be overbearing in order to be a good parent. Children develop autonomy and independence by having and learning from their own experiences. If Tate's mother was trusted to babysit then it is because it was believed to be a safe environment and she was a competent adult that had earned enough trust to watch someone else's child. They were two young kids playing in a safe space I don't understand how you can criminalize the mother. This is a SOCIAL JUSTICE and human rights issue pertaining to institutions that systematically oppress certain people to their benefit. Please stop taking your privilege for granted and being so comfortable in your ignorance.
chief l0ngshlong on September 26, 2017:
the mother is guilty
kelly on September 17, 2017:
Don't blame mom for being up stairs. I baby sat at 14 many many times. Troubled kids usually aren't troubled 24\7 and they may have been playing well together all evening.
T.A. on September 07, 2017:
That evil monster is right where he deserves to be because the right sentence was handed down the first time. Given a 2nd and 3rd chance after killing a small innocent little girl, Tate true nature won out every time. Goodbye to bad rubbish.
JustPassingBy on September 03, 2017:
I know that people on this site just want to say something and they have a hard time seeing both sides of the story, but I had to stop in and say that you guys should try dual consciousness. Some of you are saying that Tate's mother should be blamed as well because of "neglect" and that she was most likely upstairs getting high. She was a state trooper and a mother. Her son messed up and it is not her fault. Whether it was an accident or not, he was 12 and needed rehabilitation. He didn't need to be sentenced to life in prison for that. There are men out there that rape women and sexually abuse children, and they get a few years. Men that are twice the age or more of this child. They knew better for sure and they still get less time than he did. Because he was sentenced to this, the justice failed him and allowed him to become a product of a system that doesn't work. Instead of giving the counseling he needed and possibly the education, he left prison with few skills besides those he picked up from fellow inmates. Of course he's going to get in trouble again. How hard do you guys think it is to leave prison and get a job or education? Maybe before you start dissing the people in these situations, you should try to understand what it is like to be in their situation.
Miss Adult on June 15, 2017:
Yes, both Parents lost n child, although one can go visit, but its not the same. If the state saw that he had n trouble past n school etc, something should have been done. I fought for my son, I begg n cry out for help, I was ignore, they would rather lock my son up than give him help. I got everybody n anybody to see, medicine was given that made him worse, cause when he don't take it, hell all over again. The State has their eyes open but don't really care, the help came for him, but it was too late, suicide happen.
Syl King on May 25, 2017:
His mom must Be very Yong to, maybe getting high upstairs, but whatever, he was still old enough to know harm and danger. When I was that age, I knew better, Then him still getting in more trouble, man. HE should get 20 years straight now.
Buttermilkmilk on March 26, 2017:
It's crazy about how many chances Lionel Tate got before he got a severe sentence.
Emmy Chen on March 22, 2017:
How long will Lionel Tate be in prison now?
CEP 1987 on February 24, 2017:
Our children suffer the consequences of parents neglect and unsupervised care. Also God's teachings has been taken out of the equation of Scriptural & Biblical teachings,truth and guidance. What was done to Tiffany, because of a troubled misguided boy should be an awareness of our children in trouble.
Andrew on February 02, 2017:
Burn in hell Lionel Tate.
Brenda on January 18, 2017:
His mom should been charged as well for neglect
Julia on January 06, 2017:
Definetly guilty !!! 170 pound kill a 6 year old he should be in jail no he does not deserve mercy, sad rthat the mother was aware of his past violence and dint do anything about it , she could had prevented the killing of this inocent 6 year old little girl, and both mothers will have to live with guilt the rest of their lives,
Denbigh Coleman on October 10, 2016:
I thought at first it was unfair the way he was treated, but after reading the full story I don't feel any sympathy for him.
Lee on May 21, 2016:
I have no sympathy for him. At first I did but when he got released and committed a crime that went out the window. He's a menace to society and I'm glad he's in prison.
Jonas Rodrigo on July 05, 2015:
I truly admire your creativity for coming up with the topic of this hub, and of the many other ones in this series that you've been made. It's a sad thing that things like this happen to our children.
Ashley Cogdill from Indiana/Chicagoland on June 01, 2015:
Sad to see. I'm not sure about the wrestling though. He seems to have a violent past and should have never been left alone in the room with her. Did anything happen to the mother for neglect?
VERA GOODWIN on January 28, 2015:
He was a bulley and he got what he deserved. Hes mindless mother should have got jail time too!!!! He has mental issue he's back in jail again. Dangerous beware!!!!
Beverly Mosher on December 24, 2014:
That kid was a kid with so many problems but none the less he was a bully. I don't feel remorse for him that he picked on a child 2 times smaller than him or that he was 2 times older than that poor baby. Bullying should be stopped. What if she had survived I wonder if she would have start bullying someone her size or someone smaller than her. And him if he'd got away with mistreating her how many countless times that he done it. And to how many poor babies that child would have victimized before he really would have found himself in his home, (Prison).
lionel tate on November 25, 2014:
josh on July 11, 2014:
shawn, he may be a killer but he was only 12 years old but his mom should have paid attention to the children so it is partially her fault and because of that we have a dead child and a young killer
page on June 26, 2014:
To be real if it was mine baby i probably would have killed him in his mom that my baby
trey on January 21, 2014:
he deserves 20
Shawn on January 13, 2014:
Lionel Tata should have got death he know he killed tiffany that sweet child and the mother should got the death to she know what her son did she is not a mother but a dog now lionel is in prison I hope he never get out real talk my heart go out to tiffany family god bless you!
ivy on December 21, 2013:
He was given two chances...he blew it and now he suffers the consequences...Im sure he was given plenty of counseling in juvenile detention....He is a menace and killers move on to commit more crimes....I have yet to see a killer be turned around.....do the research.....confinement is the best thing or more Tiffanies will be uncovered.....
Pam on October 08, 2013:
Watched the LMN show about him when Al Sharpton and the rest were rooting for him BUT in my heart I knew he was a killer the child was much smaller and a girl so to me he was a little punk, didn't beleive the wrestling move crap and see I was right he committed yet 2 more crimes. Some people you just can't save.
danielle on October 06, 2013:
I agree with Kevin and some of the comments he needed help but I also say amen to the little girls momma for forgiving him for killing her little girl I do believe in forgiveness no matter how bad situation amen
kevin on October 06, 2013:
Tastes mom should have been held accountable she was supposed to be babysitting her friends kid and u don't go to bed while doing so if she had been up and doing so child would still be alive
brianna on November 11, 2012:
This stuff is so sad!I am 10 and watch wwe.I can't imagine how tiffany felt.
crystal on May 17, 2012:
that is terrirying
gloria estrada on May 31, 2011:
Antonia Monacelli (author) from Ontario, Canada on January 28, 2011:
I agree that a lot of people who become criminals; especially those who commit crimes as a child, usually had difficult childhoods. As you said, they often have no parents, or parents with emotional and mental problems, they are also often abused physically, sexually, and/or emotionally a lot. They are often raised in poverty, in areas where crime is a way of life for many of the adults.
That being said, there is nothing to indicate that Lionel Tate was subject to such dire circumstances in his life. He had already shown behavioral issues, and despite the fact that they could be indicative of trauma or difficulties in his life, there is nothing that really points one way or the other. The other way being that yes, sometimes children are just born with mental or emotional difficulties, or develop them despite a "normal" childhood. If anything, the fact that he claimed later on in life to be hearing voices would lean more towards it being a mental problem he suffered from.
I do not think he should have been locked up for life in prison the first place, what he really needed was help. The problem is that society needs to be feel as though they are protected, and the government feels pressure to do so, and that usually means prison. He was given a second chance when he was released, but he continued to end up in criminal situations. I don't think 30 years in prison are going to help him, or society really, but at some point, he had to be held accountable, regardless of where his criminal behavior stems from.
spring1802 on January 27, 2011:
As a probation officer I knew children who robbed,raped, and killed. I always saw a child not a criminal despite what they had done.They were mostly threw away and could not tell you why they did what they did. They all had been neglected,abused,or just there -wrong place&time.They had no parent or ones with emotional and mental problems. Locking them up for life says this society did not care and never will.
Antonia Monacelli (author) from Ontario, Canada on January 11, 2011:
Thank you for your comment.
Yes, I think it's sad when parents don't monitor what their kids are watching. Parents really need to be aware of what their children see on TV, and explain to them that the things that happen on TV aren't real, and that they should never try to imitate anything they see on TV; whether it is wrestling, or stunts from shows like Jackass, or pranks they see on comedy shows.
The Pink Panther from Sydney, Australia on January 10, 2011:
That's a horrible story.
Little kids shouldn't be allowed to be exposed things like professional wrestling because they just can't comprehend that it's choreographed and that they shouldn't imitate it.
Coupled with a naturally violent disposition, tragedies like this can seem inevitable.