Lionel Tate, who was 12 when he killed a 6-year-old playmate while practicing wrestling moves he had seen on television, will get a new trial. Tate, now 16, is serving a life prison term with no possibility of parole. A Florida appeals court ruled yesterday that a judge should have scheduled a hearing to ensure that the Broward County, Fl., youth was capable of understanding the case against him. Tate deserved the hearing because developmental delays lowered his mental age to 9 or 10 and that he had no previous experience with the justice system, the court said, reported the St. Petersburg Times
“It focuses attention on the fact that age can be and should be a factor in deciding whether somebody’s competent,” said University of Florida law professor Christopher Slobogin.
The question of how much children understand in adult court proceedings has become increasingly significant as prosecutors have charged more youths with adult crimes. Some experts say it should not come as a surprise that youths have difficulty understanding complex decisions in legal cases. “Where would they be if they weren’t (in court)?” asked Luanne Panacek of the Hillsborough, Fl., Children’s Board. “They would have to make decisions about how to use their lunch money and they don’t even make good decisions there.”
Tate’s case was widely publicized publicity when he was charged as an adult with first-degree murder in the death of 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick in 1999. His attorneys said Tate, then 170 pounds, killed 48-pound Tiffany accidentally while practicing pro wrestling moves. Tiffany suffered a fractured skull, brain contusions, a partly detached liver and injuries to her pancreas and kidneys. Tate’s mother was asleep at the time.
When Circuit Judge Joel Lazarus asked Tate if he understood the idea of waiving attorney-client privilege, Tate said no. The judge ordered Tate to be examined by mental health experts. Prosecutors objected, and the court withdrew its order. However, one expert for the state evaluated Tate before trial and concluded that he was legally competent.