02/12/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
The way Lionel Tate told it, he and Tiffany Eunick were just playing on the night of July 28, 1999. At first, said the avid 12-year-old fan of television wrestling, they had watched movies in his mother's Pembroke Park, Fla., house. Afterward 6-year-old Tiffany asked what he wanted to do next. "I said, 'Wrestling, and I'm the Rock,' Lionel told his attorney. He claims they punched each other and he threw her into a stairway. "I threw her back into the stairs and this time she hit her head." Later that night, recalls his mother, Florida state trooper Kathleen Grossett-Tate, 38, "Lionel ran up the stairs and said, 'Ma, Tiffany looks like she's not breathing.'
On Jan. 25 a Broward county jury rejected the defense that Lionel, 166 lbs. at the time of the murder, should not be held criminally responsible for his actions because he was merely imitating the wrestling violence he saw on TV. For one thing, Lionel had admitted that he knew TV wrestling was "fake." And the jury could hardly discount the fact that Tiffany, his 48-lb. playmate, had suffered 35 injuries including a fractured skull and lacerated liver.
"There was no doubt that this was not child's play," says assistant state attorney Kenneth Padowitz, 40, explaining that the first-degree charge by the grand jury was based on the viciousness of the attack and the fact that a child was abused. But Padowitz, himself the father of two boys, 12 and 8, found no satisfaction in the probable sentence. Unless the verdict is overturned, state law requires the judge, at sentencing March 2, to commit Lionel to life without parole. Gov. Jeb Bush could then step in and reduce the prison term or send Lionel to a juvenile facility. Meanwhile the defense plans to ask for a new trial. "There were no winners," says the prosecutor.
Indeed, jurors, who could have convicted on a lesser charge if they felt Tiffany's death was accidental, had mixed emotions about their decision. "Nobody wanted to put down a guilty verdict, because it was a child," says Kathleen Pow-Sang, 50. Even Tiffany's mother, though she agrees with the verdict, isn't elated at the outcome. "I liked [Lionel] before this happened, sure, and I still do," says Deweese Eunick, 28. "But he did something wrong and he has to pay the consequences."
Lionel and Tiffany had been friends since their mothers met through Grossett-Tate's cousin about a month before the little girl died. On the day of Tiffany's death, her mother had taken the children to the library, where they had played on computers, then brought the kids home for lunch. At about 4 that afternoon, Grossett-Tate retrieved the children and Eunick left for work.
Back at her home, Grossett-Tate napped until about 7, when she rose to fix the children dinner, then went back upstairs to bed. She woke once to tell the kids to stop making noise and was roused again later by a strange sound, like someone "having a nightmare," she says. When she called downstairs to tell them to be quiet, Lionel answered that Tiffany was asleep. At around 10:40 Lionel fetched his mother. Grossett-Tate says she "tried in vain" to revive Tiffany before emergency crews arrived.
Just before trial Grossett-Tate rejected a plea bargain that would have sent Lionel to a juvenile facility for a three-year term because, she insists, her son did not understand what he was doing. "I'm not saying it wasn't his fault," says Grossett-Tate, who raised her son largely alone since parting in 1987 from Lionel's father, John Tate, 38, a factory worker. "But my son did not intentionally kill Tiffany."
Michael Brannon, a wrestler turned psychologist who interviewed Lionel for the case, feels that the boy, who had had disciplinary troubles at school, probably knew he had gone too far. Yet, he adds, "he's a kid with a history of problems who needs long-term assistance. You don't get that by putting someone in prison for the rest of their life."
Siobhan Morrissey and Linda Trischitta in Fort Lauderdale