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Special Event

Wrestling Death: Judge Sentences Lionel Tate, 14, to Life in Prison

Aired March 9, 2001 - 11:34 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We go straight to Judge Joel Lazarus' courtroom as the sentencing hearing is under way for Lionel Tate, the 14-year-old convicted of killing a 6-year-old girl. We'll find out what's going to happen. Let's listen in.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JUDGE JOEL LAZARUS, BROWARD COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT: ... appearances on talk shows, radio programs, pulpits and houses of worship and in every -- in any other form imaginable. This was not the media doing their job of reporting, this was a calculated effort to try this case for a second time in a court not governed by its laws of the state of Florida, but by the feelings of sympathy and compassion for a 14-year-old convicted of the highest offense known to mankind.

And the effect was virtually immediate. Letters arrived from the North and South, East and West of this country. And these letters were almost universal in their tenor: Have mercy on Lionel Tate, have compassion on this 14-year-old. The letters contained phrases such as "horsing around," "boys will be boys," "playing," "an accident."

As recently as last Thursday, one of the counsels was on television, stated no punishment was warranted for this accident. It is a truism that no one single letter writer or call maker was privy to the horrific facts brought out during the trial. Not one person sat through the pathetic testimony of the results of Lionel Tate's deeds upon the body of Tiffany Eunick.

The emphasis since January 25 has been on the defendant on how to bypass what the law apparently requires with hopes and prayers and requests for mercy and leniency for this child. Voices cry out for justice, but not for the justice for Tiffany Eunick. Most letters and calls referred to this victim only as an afterthought. In the court of public opinion, Lionel Tate was turned into the victim.

It is obvious what the purpose of these appearances in the studios and on the pulpits by participants in this trial has been, and to this very day continues to be. If the purpose is to pressure this court to proceed with its heart rather than its mind, with all due respect, I decline. The jury has defined the future of Lionel Tate and the jury has spoken loudly, clearly and unanimously. Regardless of my rulings here this day, I assure all of you, based upon my perception of the law -- a perception, I might add, that I am thoroughly convinced to be correct -- if I based my rulings on what the overwhelming majority of the public is requesting, I would be perhaps a hero to those who want me to act out of sympathy, but I would be disavowing the oath I have taken to uphold the laws of the state of Florida and our Constitution. Above all, we are a nation of laws. The very last thing a jury is told is none of us have the right to violate rules we all share.

In the final analysis, the court of public opinion cannot be the body ruling on these motions and sentence. It must be by this judge following the laws of this land.

Justice Blackmun stated in his dissent in Furman v. Georgia, "we should not allow our personal preferences as to the wisdom of legislative and congressional actions or our distaste for such action to guide our judicial decision in cases such as these. The temptations to cross that policy line are very great."

The indictment handed down by the grand jury has caused much criticism and also is an integral part of the grounds and the motion for a new trial. The ability to indict is present within the laws of Florida and there can be no challenge to the impaneling of this grand jury.

The issue, though, is one of the applicability of a felony murder statute in the instant case. The court is being asked to grant a new trial on the grounds that Florida Statute 82703, aggravated child abuse, was unconstitutionally applied at bar. Aggravated child abuse occurs when a person, A, commits aggravated battery on a child, or, C, knowingly or willfully abuses a child and doing so causes great bodily harm, permanent disability or permanent disfigurement to the child. I might add Section B is inapplicable.

Aggravated battery is defined as intentionally and knowingly causing great bodily harm, permanent disability or permanent disfigurement. Child abuse means intentional affliction of physical injury upon a child or an intentional act that could reasonably be expected to result in physical injury to a child.

The defense alleges that the aggravated child abuse statute was never meant to apply to situations of one child hurting another. No cases are cited to support this position and review of the legislative history of Florida Statute 827 does not support this contention.

There have been cases in Florida that have dealt with child-upon- child aggravated child abuse. This court finds no case where an aggravated child abuse, juvenile upon juvenile, was underlining felony in a murder of the first degree prosecution. While most aggravated child abuse cases are concerned with familial or custodial situations, the mere fact the defendant is not within that group does not preclude the charge from being prosecuted. In the absence of case law to the contrary, the court is not in a position to grant a new trial because of an allegation of inapplicability. In the case of assistant district habeas, the court asked for guidance on this very issue, but none was forthcoming. In a pro curium decision affirming Judge Rheamus Burger (ph), the Second District Court of Appeals questioned the prosecutorial decision of one juvenile being charged with aggravated child abuse on another that said, quote: "The legislature may well wish to review this issue," end quote.

Now this court also requests guidance in the future as to the intent of the statute, which undisputedly permits a prosecution of a juvenile under Florida statute 827.03. Should the state have sought what they are legally empowered to do, is not an issue for the court. The policies of the state attorney of the 17th Judicial Circuit should not, and will not, be praised or criticized, at least by this court.

The public opinion sends a message to what I believe is the appropriateness or lack of appropriateness of indicting a 12-year-old for aggravated child abuse resulting in death, the necessary elements of a felony murder and a first degree charge. Once the state chooses to seek an indictment for a crime punishable by death or life imprisonment upon the return of the indictment, the child must be tried and handled in every respect as an adult. Florida statute 985.225 requires such action against, quote, "a child of any age," end quote.

In crimes other than capital, the prosecutor can proceed in juvenile court or as permitted by Florida statute (UNINTELLIGIBLE) information. Other cases similar in many respects to that of Lionel Tate's will appear in the future, unfortunately, and without a doubt; and the prosecuting authorities would be wise to heed the voices being raised and examine their criteria in prosecuting 12-year-old boys and girls. Make no mistake, this judge does consider a 12-year-old a boy or girl, regardless of the crime he or she commits.

But it's not the court's consideration which dictates how a prosecutor proceeds. This court was provided with a recent letter on behalf of the international organization, Amnesty International, as well as taking testimony from its representative in attendance. The letter and the testimony details the organization's concerns for the treatment of children who are convicted of serious criminal offenses. It is a realization, though, that there is severity and inflexibility of the sentence which the youngster now faces. The relevant authority's response shall always be in proportion only to the circumstances and the gravity of the offenses, but also to the circumstances and needs of the juvenile as well as the needs of society. The recognition of the relevant authorities' response is present. These are legislative decision that's must be addressed, and not judicial decisions. Judges cannot and should not legislate from the bench.

The court has been implored to recognize the plea offer made in February 2000 which was rejected by silence, and that was no response from defense. Prior to commencement of trial, this court on its own made inquiry as to the possibility of a negotiated plea; at that time, there was no plea offer on the table. But nevertheless, inquiry was made to see if there could be a resolution without a trial. Obviously there was none.

Specifically, the defendant himself stated his desire to go to trial. The prosecutor said the defense merely had to approach him for negotiations to commence, but no one approached him. The prosecutor did not initiate a resolution. And even if he had, subsequent comments from the defense clearly show that a plea was unacceptable as a resolution. There has not been any acknowledgment that Lionel Tate did anything wrong at any time and he would never plead to what was, in his mind, an accident.

Should the government have taken the initiative? If it had, perhaps the results would have been different and we would not be here now. The defense, it is reported, was interested in a resolution, but was steadfast in its insistence that no admission of guilt or incarceration would result. Should the defense have been more realistic in its expectations? If it had, perhaps the results would have been different; we might not be here now.

Testimony was received on March the 2nd, and again today from Mrs. Grosset-Tate. She testified that she never knew or made inquiry as to the penalty for murder in the first degree. As a law enforcement officer for her to say she did not know the penalty for murder in the first degree, a capital offense, is beyond credibility. For her to state she did not ask, when a first-degree murder charge subjects most defendants to the possibility of execution -- obviously not in this case, though -- that Lionel Tate would be facing that potentiality is unbelievable.

The statement that not one person: attorney, layperson or mental health specialist ever mentioned a life sentence cast doubts on her testimony as a basis for a new trial is rejected. In her own words, she said that she did not tell her son he was facing life in prison; she never thought it would go this far -- and probably she well knew.

Of course the issue is whether her son, the defendant, knew. The court is satisfied that from early on, including his comments on the competency evaluation, he knew what he was facing. To bring this issue up after the verdict was received is irrelevant to the business at hand. Additionally, statements made to the world by Ms. Grosset- Tate as recently as a week ago states that no plea would ever be accepted, even now; for in her words, "this was an accident."

This court does not know whether any deals were cut or were not as to post-conviction actions by the prosecutor in joining with the trial attorney. Such has been repeated by the media, reported by the media, and as part of the motions filed in this case is totally immaterial at this point. Once the jury has spoken, the opportunity for negotiations has ceased. Whatever actions the attorneys choose to take here or in Tallahassee in the future is their business, and not the court's. If such becomes relevant in subsequent litigation, the court will address it at that time.

If the state was surprised at the verdict, it should reread their arguments after the state's case was concluded and again after the defense rested. if the state now believe that a murder in the first degree verdict was inappropriate, I need not remind them that they had well over 500 days from the date of indictment to the date of jury selection to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) their case and refile as murder in the second degree or manslaughter; the latter charge apparently now the basis for the final plea negotiations.

They got what they wanted, they now have to take responsibility for their actions in seeking it in the first instance. The state chose not to deviate from what they sought in August of 1999. To talk about travel to the governor to seek a reduction in charge of sentence, if accurate, is of tremendous concern to this court. It only casts the prosecutor in a light inconsistent with his role in the criminal justice system; I believe that it makes the whole court process seem like a game where, if the results are unfavorable, they run to a higher source to seek a different result.

A trial is not a test balloon sent up to see what may happen. If the results displease both sides, so be it; this is what our jury system is all about. The court has no authority to impose a plea that was rejected. The court has no obligation to accept a negotiation if one had been proposed post-verdict to be talked away outside the jury's absence. This type of fiction is unacceptable and, quite possibly, is violating Florida law. I add that this denigrates the very difficult and diligent job the 12 jurors did in this case, and I'm sure it makes some question the jury system at all.

The defense has filed a motion requesting a caudal (ph) hearing; as stated previously, this court declines holding a caudal hearing not on its merits, but on its timing. Such a hearing may well be heard in the future; to do so now, as was stated, is untimely.

It has been suggested that if the jury had been informed of the potential punishment that accompanied a murder in first degree conviction, the jury's deliberations might have concluded in a different result. The jury was not informed, correctly, that a guilty verdict would require a life sentence. The juries are instructed they must disregard the consequence of their verdict. Since the mid 1980s, law has not permitted the jury to be informed, except in those cases where the jurors participate in the sentencing. The jurors role is to be the trier of the facts. For a jury to exercise pardon power would fly in the face of our whole judicial system. There cannot be any acceptance of the concept of jury nullification, where a jury does not like the law or like how it is to be applied.

In a supplemental motion for a new trial, the defense makes error in admission of certain statements by Dr. Michael Brannon (ph). A full hearing was held on this issue, with Dr. Brannon testifying. At issue was whether the doctor violated the terms of both his employ and the agreement between the state and the defense. It is in general agreement that Dr. Brannon would not talk about any admissions as to the events on the specific day. It is this court's opinion that Dr. Brannon did not violate the agreement in part or in whole, specifically the most damaging testimony from the doctor at trial concerned Lionel Tate's perception that professional wrestling was not real. The statements did not violate the agreement.

A defense witness at the motion for new trial, Dr. John Spencer (ph), while expressing consternation that Dr. Brannon's testimony, did not feel that Dr. Brannon violated any of the ethical considerations all psychologists are subject to. Dr. Spencer admitted that he did not report Dr. Brannon to the appropriate governing body, and that if he felt a violation occurred, he would have. Accordingly, the introduction of Dr. Brannon's testimony is not grounds for a new trial.

In the second supplement for motion for new trial, it is alleged that the actions of Dr. Sherry Bore-Carter (ph) were egregious, requiring a new trial. The court heard sufficient testimony from the Dr. Bore-Carter to find if any improprieties by the psychologist were present, they certainly did not approach a level of prejudice to defendant which should result in a new trial. Additionally, the facts of the instant case are sufficiently dissimilar as to negate the relevancy of Holland v. State. Taking into consideration her absence at Dr. Spencer's office, the trial testimony, and her testimony at the motion of March the 2nd, 2001, Dr. Carter's activities do not create a ground to reverse the jury.

It has been argued that sentencing a 14-year-old to life in prison is cruel and/or unusual punishment, violative of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, or Article I, section 17 of the declaration of rights of the Florida Constitution. In effect, the defense argues that such a sentence is disproportionate to the crime charged -- specifically, child abuse causing death.

It is also argued that such a sentence -- an Eight Amendment analysis does not reflect current standards. Perhaps the leading case in the Eighth Amendment analysis is Trop v. Dulles. Quote: "While the state has the power to punish, the amendment stands to assume that this power be exercised within the limits of civilized standards."

It is not the court's role to act as a legislator or to reflect public opinion. While the court should look to objective indications of societal current values, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Greg v. George (ph), has stated, quote: "Courts are not representative bodies; they are not designed to be a good reflex of a democratic society. Their judgment is best informed and, therefore, most dependable, with a narrow limits. Their essential quality is detachment founded on independence; history teaches that the independence of the judiciary is jeopardized when courts become embroiled in the passions of the day and assume primary responsibility in choosing between competing political, economic and social pressures."

While Eighth Amendment prohibits the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment, recognizing the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society, prevailing state and federal case law hold that life imprisonment for murder in the first degree, even when the convicted is barely into his teens, is neither cruel nor unusual. The defense argued that the child abuse person traded by Lionel Tate merged with the killing of Tiffany Eunick and constitutes a single offense. In other words, there could be no crime of felony murder in the first degree with a predicate act of aggravated child abuse.

This court notices the conflict with Kansas v. Lucas. On the other hand, it is quite clear that aggravated child abuse may sustain a felony murder first degree charge. Accordingly, this court denies the request to dismiss the charge of felony murder in the first degree.

The other issues raised by the defense in their motions and supplemental motions for new trial are without legal basis. All these grounds were addressed during the pretrial motions or during the trial itself. These including impeachment of Ms. Grosset-Tate, the state's photographic submissions, the state's computer animation, the results of the Frey (ph) hearing, which limited expert testimony concerning professional wrestling, the inclusion of the third statement of Lionel Tate to law enforcement after suppression of the first two and the disallowing of professional wrestlers to testify as either fact witnesses or reluctant expert witnesses.

Thus, the motion for new trial as well as those supplemental motions on the grounds of the inapplicability of the felony murder laws and the grounds of the inapplicability of the aggravated child abuse statute, and in the grounds reviewed above are denied.

There is a provision in Florida law that permits the courts to reduce the jury verdict to a lesser charge of murder in the second degree or manslaughter. Rule 3.620 states: "When the offense is divided into degrees and necessarily include lesser offenses and the court, on a motion for a new trial, is of the opinion that the evidence does not sustain the verdict but is sufficient to sustain a finding of guilt of the lesser degree, or a lesser offense necessarily included in the one charged, the court shall not grant a new trial, but shall find or judge the defendant guilty of the lesser charge, a lesser offense necessarily included in the charge." It should be noted that this opportunity to reduce the verdict was rejected by the jury. Over defense objection, the court instructed the jury on both lessers.

In analyzing the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain the verdict, the court reviewed the testimony and physical evidence introduced at trial. I cannot be any more direct than this: the evidence of guilt was overwhelming. The jury's verdict was totally consistent with the evidence.

Much talk has been made using the term "accident." Accidents defined in Florida statute 782 within the definition of excusable homicide: "The killing of a human being is excusable and therefore lawful under any of the following circumstance: When the killing is committed by accident and misfortune in doing any lawful act by lawful means, with usual, ordinary caution and without any unlawful intent." The defense states that the accident was simply Lionel Tate replicating what he saw being done by Sting, Hulk Hogan, The Rock, familiar names to professional wrestling aficionados.

But this court is unaware of any wrestler plummeting on adversaries of 1/2 the size and 1/3 the weight, let alone half the age. The argument is rejected that the 30-plus injuries discussed herein could have been inflicted by any, quote, "means with usual, ordinary caution."

It has been suggested and rejected by the jury, listening intently to the testimony, that Lionel Tate could not appreciate what he was doing; that, in so many words, he could not and did not realize he was inflicting pain severe enough to result in death. When a child years younger than Lionel Tate accidentally hurts another, the child is cognizant of his or her actions to say, I'm sorry, and stop the offensive behavior.

Tiffany Eunick either had to cry out in major pain, a crying out that fell on Lionel Tate's deaf ears; or Tiffany Eunick was mercifully unconscious, a situation belied by Lionel Tate's reenactment. If the child was crying out, then further acts of Lionel Tate could not have been done with usual, ordinary caution; the same could be said if Tiffany Eunick was unconscious.

Perhaps, and only perhaps, the first or second or even the third blow was inflicted by accident and misfortune in doing a lawful act by lawful means with usual, ordinary caution. But that cannot explain the remaining number of significant and fatal injuries. It was shown without dispute that Lionel Tate was a fan of professional wrestling, perhaps even zealous in his love for this type of entertainment. But the facts on which the jury relied are deceptively simple in rejecting the involvement of professional wrestling replication, thus by necessary implication, absent.

In the two statements to the police, Lionel Tate's own words failed to indicate that wrestling played any part in Tiffany's brutal murder. The statements don't even come close to explaining what happened in that townhouse. In statements made to EMS and the police by the defendant's mother, neither accident nor wrestling played any part in Tiffany's fatality.

Not until there was a defense-initiated reenactment did actions initiating professional wrestling start to emerge as a defense. This reenactment totally failed to explain to the jury during trial and to this judge sitting as a 13th juror in a motion for new trial, reduction of charge, the extent and severity of the injuries to Tiffany Eunick. Even though the reenactment depicted a connection to professional wrestling, the testimony of Dr. Brannon shows that Lionel Tate disbelieved the authenticity of what he saw on television. The reenactment, in all due respect, seemed to be trying to fit the facts rather than a true depiction of the evidence. Accordingly, the jury obviously, then, in this court now, did not, and does not, accept that replicating what may or may not have been in various television wrestling shows as a reason to call Lionel Tate's actions accidental.

It should be noted that not only did the state's witnesses eliminate the possibility of action, but the defense's own witness, Dr. John Meritini (ph) negated the argument of accident. Dr. Meritini, in response to Mr. Padowitz' question, affirmatively and reluctantly dispelled the notion of accident.

In analyzing the sufficiency of the evidence, I must reflect upon the in excess of 30 separate injuries and determine whether they could have been inflicted accidentally. If the court finds they were inflicted accidentally, then the court would be clearly bound to hold that excusable homicide is defined, thus proved, and dismiss the charge or reduce it. These injuries were shown in vivid detail to the 12 jurors; they included extensive and multiple lacerations of the liver. A piece of the liver floating in the abdomen, having been severed by extraordinary force; a rib fracture, a fracture to the skull, brain swelling, internal injuries, including a neck hemorrhage and, tragically, many more.

It is inconceivable that such injuries could be caused by rough housing, horseplay of replicating professional wrestling moves. The number and seriousness of many of the injuries proved the state's case. This was not a death that should be classified as excusable homicide. It matters not which occurred in what order as to the ultimate culpability of Lionel Tate. But what is important is the timing of the injuries, is the severity of the two major injuries, according to Dr. Franagan (ph) and Dr. Kurschner (ph).

If one was to assume that the initial injury to Tiffany Eunick was the blow to the head, as depicted in the class reenactment, then the abdominal injuries which followed had to be a horrific stomping by foot and knee or both on an unconscious little girl. And because of the nature of the injuries to the abdomen, Tiffany Eunick had either to be prone on the ground or held up in a vertical position. One assumes the blows to the abdomen proceeded the others, that the injuries to the head and brain had to be caused in a way similar to swinging a limp object like a rag doll into the stair rails. Either way, the injuries cannot considered as accidental.

In this court's opinion, an accidental infliction of the injuries is totally inconsistent for the testimony and with logic. Those not present in court who defend the actions of Lionel Tate as accidental simply do not see or hear the evidence of guilt.

For the concept of absent being rejected, the court must decide whether these injuries sustained the ailment of aggravated child abuse. Aggravated child abuse occurs when the defendant commits aggravated battery and death results, or commits child abuse and death results. The difference between the two is that in the aggravated battery component the defendant must have acted intentionally and intended to cause great bodily harm, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement. And if death results, felony murder by aggravated child abuse.

In a case of child abuse, the defendant must knowingly or willfully inflict physical injury which results in great bodily harm, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement -- or do an act intentionally that could reasonably be expected to result in physical injury to a child.

There is an element of intent in both subsections, whether or not Lionel Tate had the requisite intent to commit aggravated battery or knowingly or willfully commit child abuse -- was presented to the jury, and the jury so found that he did. Lay and expert testimony as to issue of Lionel Tate's maturity, and, by implication, his ability to intend an act, was admitted over the state's objection.

A special jury instruction as to material level was given, over the state's objection. The jury, through its verdict, has stated its finding as the trier of the facts. The government relied more heavily on the child abuse component, rather than the aggravated battery section.

To say that Lionel Tate did not commit child abuse would be stating that he did not knowingly or willfully inflict this injury. Note that the statute does not require that Lionel Tate knowingly and willfully inflicted physical injury. Either would suffice. Lionel Tate even believes he may have not have willfully inflicted physical injury, had to knowingly do so.

Additionally, the child abuse statute in the alternative states that Lionel Tate did an act intentionally. This is not an issue in court's mind, that that act or acts could reasonably be expected to result in physical injury, then the charge is proved. Once again, the number is in severity of the injuries through these elements.

This judge has been asked to follow the example set by the Honorable Hiller Zobel in the so-called British nanny case, Massachusetts v. Woodward. It is unnecessary to state the facts of that the case other than it's necessary to -- to further our analysis. On February 1997, eight-month-old Matthew Eappen died of severe head injuries. On March the 5th, 1997, a grand jury indicted nanny Louise Woodward for murder in the first degree. October 30, 1998, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder, and the judge imposed the mandatory life sentence on Ms. Woodward.

On November 10th, 1997, Judge Zobel reduced the jury verdict to involuntary manslaughter. Judge Zobel rejected the granting of a new trail, and to quote his words, which I find applicable in the present case: "Thus, a verdict of guilty could not properly result from the jury's merely rejecting the defense's physiological explanation as inadequate or the defendant's version of the events as implausible. The jury could return a guilty verdict only if, in addition to an adverse assessment of the defense position, the jurists concluded, on all the evidence, that the prosecutor's version was true beyond a reasonable doubt."

In denying a new trial, Judge Zobel chose to reduce the charge. He did so by invoking a rule in the commonwealth that does not have a corollary in Florida. Massachusetts rule of criminal procedure states if a verdict of guilty is returned, the judge may on motion order the entry of a finding of guilty of any offense included in the offense charged in the indictment. In short, under Massachusetts law, the court may reduce the level of the conviction for any reason the justice may require.

If the Florida legislature, in the future, chooses to incorporate such a procedure in the rules of criminal procedure, then, and only then, can the court embrace this concept, but until that time arrives, if ever, the singular and only ground for reduction has been discussed above.

It is requested by the defense of this court to find the jury verdict was contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. This I decline to do. The evidence of Lionel Tate's guilt is clear, obviously and indisputable. And that evidence supports the jury verdict. To find otherwise would be to invalidate each juror's decision unanimously finding for a verdict of guilt. In these proceeding pages, the court has rejected the defendant's motion for new trial. There are no grounds which exist permitting the court to do so. In the proceeding pages, this court has rejected the motion -- defense motion -- to reduce the charge to murder in the second degree or manslaughter. There are no grounds which exist for me and the court to do so.

I am moved by the outpouring of concern for Lionel Tate. At the same time, I am dismayed by the lack of the concern for child victimized by Lionel Tate. It is obviously that Tiffany Eunick would never have a second chance of life, and there are so many who plead for a second chance for the defendant.

Only those who sat through the days of testimony can appreciate the nature of the acts of Lionel Tate. Only those who viewed the physical evidence can appreciate the gravity of the offense. To embrace the concept of accident, one would have to ignore in totality what was presented and accepted by the jurors. The acts of Lionel Tate were not the playful acts of a child. The acts of Lionel Tate were the acts born out of immaturity. The acts of Lionel Tate were cold, callous, and indescribably cruel.

It is therefore the sentence of this court, in accordance with the laws in the state of Florida, that you, Lionel Tate, have been found guilty of murder in the first degree in the death of Tiffany Eunick. You're sentenced to incarceration for your natural life. Done and ordered this ninth day of March 2001.

You have 30 days in which to appeal. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. This court will stand in recess.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: God is going to get you. God is going to get you.

LAZARUS: If the child is indigent for appellate purposes, then I will appoint the public defendant's office.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... the issue of who will represent him on the appeal I'd ask you to reserve at this time.

LAZARUS: I am asking you to -- just to make that in typing -- have it on my desk Monday morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir.

LAZARUS: Thank you. I don't think you'll sacrifice any rights by waiting until Monday to submit that to me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, judge.

LAZARUS: Thank you. PHILLIPS: Live from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Judge Joel Lazarus has handed down the sentence. Fourteen-year-old Lionel Tate has now learned his fate: life in prison for killing 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick. Judge -- Judge Lazarus says, "the evidence of guilt was overwhelming" and that Lionel Tate committed the highest offense of mankind, that his actions were "cold, callous, and indescribably cruel." And for that 14-year-old Lionel Tate will now spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Mark Potter has been following this story for us. He joins us now by phone.

Quite a powerful moment, Mark.

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A very strong moment, a very strong and passionate ruling from the judge, Joel Lazarus, who noted that there was an outpouring of support for Lionel Tate.

But he criticized the public for not seeming to care as much about the fate of Tiffany Eunick. He took the public for -- to task for that.

He also -- I found it interesting -- criticized the prosecutor for his pledge to take this case to the governor, after sentencing to ask for leniency. He said that it diminishes the work of the court.

And it also -- he made the point that a court is not a trial balloon. And as we all know, the prosecutor has said that he is not personally happy with fact that a first-degree murder case leads to a life prison sentence, and that he will go to the governor and seek leniency. After this sentencing, the judge took him to task for that, saying that he was not pleased to learn that that was the case.

So this is a very, very strong and more than half-hour-long ruling from the judge. He denied the request for a new trial. He denied the request to reduce the verdict down from first-degree murder to second degree or to manslaughter.

And he said that he has no choice, that this was clearly a proved case, that Lionel committed murder. It was a brutal murder. There's no doubt about it. And he then imposed the sentence that is required by law in this case: life in prison. And that's without parole.

PHILLIPS: Mark, the judge also said that by in no way was he going to allow public opinion to decide what happens to Lionel Tate. But that he would abide by the law, and hand down this sentence.

What do you make of the court of public opinion and the influence that it may or may not have had?

POTTER: Well, it appears that it had in no impact, except to anger the judge who noted that this public opinion has been expressed since the beginning of the case as we watch young Lionel walk out of the courtroom. He's wearing leg irons and handcuffs as he always does coming in and out of the court. The judge was critical of the TV broadcast and all the people who have come forward. And he said it was just -- it was more than people expressing their opinion. He noted that it was a calculated effort to sway opinion. And he was very critical of that.

So it didn't seem to have any positive impact at all.

PHILLIPS: Our CNN's Mark Potter, stay on the line with us, Mark, please.

We have Roger Cossack, our legal analyst, joining us now -- Leon.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, let's go up to Washington and talk to Roger. I know Roger is in the process now of preparing for his show, "BURDEN OF PROOF," which comes up in a few minutes from now.

Roger, I know you've been listening and watching this. Let's start out off with the judge's sermon that he gave this morning, because that's exactly what it sounded like and what it felt like to those of us who were sitting here and watching it.

What do you make of what the judge had to say, and why he said what he said?

ROGER COSSACK, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Leon, it's an unusual event when you hear a judge, before he gives a sentence, give out with that kind of a talk. But let me tell you what I felt was going on.

In many ways, what happened today was the buck stopped with the judge. The legislature has passed a law in Florida which allows 11- year-olds to be tried for capital -- for murder and get life if convicted.

And the ball then began to roll, and no one, apparently, got in the way of stopping that legal process, until finally it ends up today with a judge being in the position of saying, I'm not the legislature who passed this law. I'm not the prosecutor who prosecuted and asked for a conviction of first-degree murder. And I'm not the defense lawyers who apparently turned down some kind of a plea bargain, in which this kind of result wouldn't happen.

And now it ends up with me, and I'm looked upon as the bad guy because it's my job to say, all right, he's being tried as an adult because that's what the legislature wants. Already he's been convicted of first-degree murder. You, Mr. Prosecutor, asked this jury to convict him of first-degree murder. And you, defense lawyer, you never talked about whether or not you're going to have a plea bargain.

Everyone stuck to their guns. Now, it's with me, and I'm the bad guy because I have to follow the law. I don't make the law. I don't make the decisions for the prosecutor or the defense. I merely have to follow the law. I have to treat him as an adult. That's what you have wanted. This is what happens.

HARRIS: Well, with all that being said, then, did he close every single door that this defense team could try to open on appeal?

COSSACK: Well, yes. He denied all of their motions. That doesn't mean that they cannot appeal to a higher court and, you know, hope to get an adverse ruling. And even the prosecutors indicated that he's uncomfortable with the notion, that this young man who killed at 11 years old and now is 14, get sentenced to a life without possibility of parole.

But that's what the law is in Florida. And that's what the prosecutor asked for. And I can see in some ways why the judge feels that perhaps the prosecutor is being a little bit -- a little bit hypocritical. After all, as the judge said, this isn't a trial balloon.

But this is what happens when the system begins to roll, and it picks up steam, and it picks up steam, and it picks up steam, and no one stops it. And now, what appears to be the unthinkable has happened. And there isn't Judge Zeller (ph) like there was in Massachusetts. Nobel (ph) -- I'm forgetting -- I'm butchering his name, but the judge in the nanny trial who did...

HARRIS: Zobel.

COSSACK: ... go ahead and -- Zobel, I'm sorry -- who did go ahead and reduce the jury's verdict when people felt that there was a great deal of feeling that perhaps it was an improper verdict, like it or not.

In this case, the judge points out that Florida doesn't have the authority -- hasn't given the authority to the judge to do what the judge was able to do in Massachusetts.

So he says, Don't look for me for relief. I can only follow what the law is. And this is what the law is. And this is what you brought me. And this is what you've asked for.

HARRIS: So in a sense, what we was in here was a result of the game of chicken, because the legislature did its part and then the prosecution and the defense both were playing a high-stakes game here. And this is the result.

COSSACK: You know, Leon, I -- this is the result. I hope it wasn't a game of chicken, because they're a 14-year-old who, as he sits right now, is going to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Now, whether you like the law, whether you believe 11-year-olds should be held and tried as adults, whether you feel one way or the other, is really irrelevant. The tragedy is that there was a young, young girl who was brutally murdered. And now, there was a young, young boy, who murdered at 11, is now being told he's going to spend the rest of his life in prison. That just doesn't speak well for the criminal justice system, whether it be Florida or any other place.

HARRIS: Roger Cossack, thanks much for you insight. Appreciate it. And we'll let you go now. We know you have to... COSSACK: Let me just add, Leon, that we will be talking a little bit about this on "BURDEN OF PROOF," which I think comes up in just a few minutes.

HARRIS: You took the words right out of my mouth. I was going to give you the plug there. That is coming up, "BURDEN OF PROOF." You go ahead and get ready for work, Roger. We appreciate that and your insight. We will be watching the show when you come up in about 13, 14 minutes or so.

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