The judges at the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday that Lionel Tate's first-degree murder conviction and life sentence should be reversed because Tate's competency should have been evaluated before the trial. The 12-year-old boy's lawyers had claimed he was imitating pro wrestlers when he killed Tiffany Eunick in July 1999.
Tate's family turned down a plea bargain before the trial that would have given him a three-year sentence.
"A competency hearing should have been held particularly given the complexity of the legal proceedings" and Tate's age and known learning disabilities, the judges wrote in a nine-page ruling.
At a minimum, the court said, the judge had an obligation to ensure that Tate understood the plea offer and the possibility that he could get a life sentence if he rejected it.
However, the court did not challenge the Florida law allowing children to be tried as adults.
"Florida courts have long recognized that there is no absolute right requiring children to be treated in a special system for juvenile offenders," the opinion said.
Tate's attorney had argued before a state appellate court that the pre-teen boy was too immature to understand what was at stake when he was on trial in 1999.
Tate was convicted of first-degree murder as an adult and sentenced to life without parole, as state law requires. He now lives in a maximum-security juvenile prison.
Gov. Jeb Bush turned down a first clemency request earlier this year because he said Tate had some behavioral problems while in the juvenile facility, reports CBS News Correspondent Peter King. The warden now supports a second petition, saying Tate has been making progress and showing improvement.
Defense attorney Richard Rosenbaum said Wednesday that Tate's refusal of the plea offer shows how "clueless" the boy was about court proceedings.
"We're ecstatic ... I thought from the very beginning that this was an accident," Rosenbaum said in a broadcast interview.
It was not immediately clear whether Tate will be released from prison or retried. The Florida attorney general's office and the Broward County state attorney's office did not immediately return calls Wednesday seeking comment.
When the three-judge panel heard the appeal in September, Judge Martha C. Warner asked prosecutors what safeguards protect a young child from Florida's broad law that allows any person, regardless of age, to be prosecuted as an adult.
"There's no discretion exercised at all in this — no societal judgment," she said then. "Age is not a consideration. That is what was argued through the whole trial."
Judge Fred A. Hazouri asked then what is to stop prosecutors from charging a 6-year-old with murder if the child gets angry at a Little League game, picks up a bat and kills a teammate.
"At what point do we say as a society that that is just too young?" Hazouri said.
Assistant Attorney General Debra Rescigno would not answer then what age would provide a reasonable cutoff for a murder conviction. She said Tate's life sentence was deserved because he horrifically beat the girl for more than five minutes.
No one disputed that the 170-pound Lionel beat Tiffany to death in the Pembroke Park home he shared with his mother, who was baby-sitting for the 48-pound girl. Kathleen Grossett-Tate, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, was asleep at the time.
An autopsy showed Tiffany suffered a fractured skull, lacerated liver, broken rib, internal hemorrhaging and cuts and bruises.
Tate's trial attorneys argued he accidentally killed her while imitating the moves of professional wrestlers he saw on television.
Lionel told police that he picked Tiffany up and accidentally hit her head against a table. He later made a videotape with a court-appointed psychologist where he claimed to have accidentally thrown Tiffany into a stair handrail and a wall while trying to throw her onto a sofa.
But the defense's own experts conceded that Lionel's story would not have accounted for all of Tiffany's injuries, which one prosecution expert said were comparable to falling from a three-story building.
Family members had refused the plea bargain because they insisted he was innocent.