Enough Blame To Go Around

Lionel Tate, 13-year-old Floridian convicted of first-degree murder in death of 6-year-old girl who, boy says, died during imitation of pro wrestling AP

Commentary by CBSNews.com Legal Consultant Andrew Cohen:


No one won the case of Florida v. Tate.

No one left that Ft. Lauderdale courtroom happy with the result. One bright young life is over. Another young life is doomed to confinement. The system failed and most everyone is to blame.

Blame Lionel Tate, first of all, for what he did to poor Tiffany Eunick. No one disputes that the then-12-year old, 170-pound boy savagely beat the 48-pound girl to death on July 28, 1999. And even if, as the defense says, Tate did not intend to harm Eunick, he surely should have known and done better. And he surely deserves to be punished for his horrific crime.

Blame Tate's mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate, for not pushing with all her might for a plea deal before trial which would have given Tate a far better deal — three years in prison, one year of house arrest and 10 years of probation — than the one he ultimately received from Florida jurors.

She and Tate's lawyers gambled that no jury would come back with a felony-murder verdict against the young man. They lost. But now Tate's the one who faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Blame prosecutors and defense attorneys for not having the courage and wisdom to push hard and continuously for that deal. What kind of a prosecutor pushes for the maximum sentence in a tragic case involving a young person and then turns around and says that the maximum sentence is too severe?

Broward County prosecutor Ken Padowitz now reportedly says that he is willing to ask Florida Governor Jeb Bush "to consider reducing to a sentence that is more appropriate for all the facts in this case, taking into consideration Tate's age at the time he committed the crime."

Problem is, Padowitz's planned plea to the governor probably will be a day late and a dollar short, since clemency requests are rarely granted. So where was Padowitz before and during the trial, when his purported sympathy for Tate could perhaps have made a difference?

It is a prosecutor's job, at the outset of a case, to ensure that a just result ensues at the end of the day. If Padowitz thought that Tate deserved some degree of mercy for whatever reason, he should have reduced the charges against him before trial so that life in prison without parole was precluded as a possible result here.

And what about Tate's lawyers? Blame them, too. They knew what the evidence would be at trial. They knew about the severity of the injuries inflicted upon the little girl. They should have known that there was a great chance that a jury would be willing to throw the book at their client and that, if the jury did, Tate likely would be looking at life without parole.

When the judge sentenced Tate on Friday, he said that the evidence of Tate's "guilt is clear, obvious and indisputable." That sounds to me like this case was not close call that could have gone either way — a case where the lawyers say, let's take a chance at trial.

Tate deserved much, much more from his lawyers than he received.
Blame Florida lawmakers, and lawmakers in too many other states around the country for that matter, for enacting laws which require kids to be tried and then sentenced as adults without giving judges enough discretion to do justice when justice and the letter of the law don't necessarily coincide.

A lot of kids do terrible things and ought to be punished severely. Some kids do terrible things and ought to be given a little, tiny bit of leniency. In an effort to do away with the perception that judges were being too soft on crime, legislators have skewed the system so that judges' hands are tied so tight that they barely are able to do their jobs.

Speaking of judges, Broward County Judge Joel Lazarus also deserves his share of the blame for this fiasco of a result. True, as he said over and over again on Friday, he was only applying the law as he sees it. And, true, he clearly believes in his heart of hearts that Tate murdered Eunick in a "cold, callous and indescribably cruel" fashion.

But somewhere along the way the judge allowed the parties to control the case and the trial to an extent which, as we now know, contributed to this conclusion.

He could have forced the parties to more forcefully discuss a plea deal. He could have permitted the defense to conduct a competency examination. And he, too, could have dropped the felony-murder charge against Tate at any point along the way. In other words, he could have fairly and justly avoided the very "inevitability" he focused upon during his sentencing ruling.

Lionel Tate did a terrible thing. There is no doubt about that. But he deserved more from the criminal justice system, and from his own inner circle, than he ultimately received.


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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