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Wrestling Death: Defense Attorneys, State Prosecutor Hold News Conference After 14-Year-Old Boy Sentenced to Life in Prison

Aired March 9, 2001 - 12:26 p.m. ET

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

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We want to take you back to the courtroom in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We're now listening to defense lawyer Jim Lewis.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JIM LEWIS, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: ... the fact that a child would spend six weeks of incarceration, some of it apparently fighting for his life, getting -- realizing the enormity that he may be facing a life sentence, being locked in an adult jail. You know, you've all heard of the things -- the immature things.

Here's a child who basically was convicted of wrestling causing a death. And what's he doing in the jail in the six weeks after that? Wrestling with other children. I mean, that to me shows the immaturity, despite being told and told absolutely, don't do that. Here's an immature child who is having it tough in the Broward County Jail.

I can only imagine the horrors that this child is now going to go through when he's scooped up by the Department of Corrections and taken to the Miami Reception Center, which is a place only for adults, where he's going to be kept apparently in absolute isolation and segregation until either the Department of Corrections or the Division of Juvenile Justice find some place for this kid. And wherever they find, it's certainly not going to be good. If it's an adult prison, they have just a very few secure, adult prisons that they have a handful of juvenile inmates in, all of them significantly older and more mature than Lionel Tate.

Other than that, we'll look to the Division of Juvenile Justice who Mr. Bankhead (ph) -- and I know they're already looking at this matter -- has the absolute discretion either to allow Lionel to go into the Division of Juvenile Justice, one of their five Level 10 facilities, or not. And that's a political decision that he's going to make. And, quite frankly, I don't know if that decision is going to take a week, a month or a year.

But, in the meantime, that little boy is going to be in pretty much tantamount to solitary confinement.

QUESTION: Mr. Lewis, what happens to Lionel tonight? Where does he go? LEWIS: Presumably he'll still be here in the Broward County jail. But he could be picked up by the Department of Corrections at any time. I'm sure they've made some types of arrangements to try to get him out of this jail and into that facility.

But the bottom line is now, he's been in adult jail, now he's going to an adult prison. And nobody can guarantee his safety, either his mental well-being or his physical well-being, in those institutions.

QUESTION: If you could have done something differently, what would that be in this case?

LEWIS: It would be 100 things.

QUESTION: For example?

LEWIS: You know, look, I certainly accept the part of blame because I didn't think that this child intentionally killed that little girl. I certainly share that part of the blame in not absolutely convincing Katherine (ph), the mother, to take that plea. But for that child now to be punished because of the professional around him made bad choices, or his mother made a bad choice, that's the most unfair thing of all. This child is basically just being led around, told what to do, if not by his mother, then by the people that are trying to help him.

And now -- you know, that was a fair plea offer. That was a great plea offer. And if I could role things back and turn back time and convince everyone that that's the way this case ought to have went, I'd like to do that. And I wish this judge had taken the opportunity to reduce this verdict and do that. But he didn't. He didn't use the discretion that he had.

QUESTION: Jim, at the time when that plea offer was made, I remember you saying or Kathleen saying that Lionel shouldn't spend a day in jail for (OFF-MIKE). Do you still feel, even after listening to Judge Lazarus' reading -- I mean, he had some pretty harsh words for everyone -- but that this was not an accident. Do you still feel Lionel should...

RICHARD ROSENBAUM, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Let me answer that, because the harsh words for everyone, you got the wrong taste of this from this judge. He didn't know what was going on in the minds of the defense lawyers here, in the minds of the psychologists, and he really belittled some very excellent people. Talking about Dr. Butz (ph), all right, her job was not to determine competency. All right, she did an excellent job. The psychological team did an excellent job.

I'm the appellant lawyer. I'm the guy that comes in to clean up the mess. Typically, I come in the day after tomorrow, after this has all gone and taken place. Jim had the foresight to bring me in and say, let's see what appellate issues there are. And there are slews of appellate issues.

This is not the last time you're going to see Lionel Tate in this courtroom, because we will be back here on appeal or on a post- conviction motion. You don't send a kid to jail for his entire life when he doesn't even know that that's what he's facing. And every witness that we shuffled up here these last two weeks said Lionel didn't know what the sentence was. Mom said, I never told Lionel what the sentence was. How could you tell a child, a 12-year-old, if you lose, you go to jail for life? Jim never told the child. It's a difficult thing to tell a child. And in this case it was impossible.

And how can a child make an intelligent decision whether to pass up a plea or not pass up a plea if he doesn't know what he's really facing? Yes, Lionel said -- he was asked by a doctor, Dr. Cord Carter (ph), what happens if you lose? And he said, I go to prison for a long time. Well, in his mind, a long time was three years. Now he's in jail for the rest of his life.

And we're going to do whatever we can to make sure that we've set this up for appeal so that Lionel comes back here and wins his new trial and can make intelligent decisions.

QUESTION: Wasn't it -- as I'm posing it, it might have been -- wasn't it -- Mr. Lewis, wasn't it your responsibility to make it clear to Lionel that if he went to trial, he faced a life sentence?

LEWIS: At this point, because we have the issue of the attorney- client privilege, I can't respond to direct communications between Lionel, I or his mother. At some point that may change, but for now I can't.

QUESTION: The judge was also very critical of those who maintained to this point that this was all an accident. He spoke very specifically about the injuries, saying this could not have been an accident, this was a cold and callus act. How do you respond?

LEWIS: You know, we all sat through the trial. And you, the -- not all of you who are journalists, but all of us here. And, yes, the injuries were significant. The little girl died. We never claimed that the injuries were not significant. But they could have occurred in as little as a minute. And if I hear again 30 or 35 injuries, they're talking about little, bitty bruises the size of a dime that very well could have been caused by the hand prints of those people who tried to resuscitate her and resuscitation efforts. Even the broken rib could have been caused by Kathleen Tate and the other paramedics there that were trying to save that little girl.

Now, we tried the best that we could to have that heard. We tried the best that we could to have a jury understand more about how children, when they watch things on television, particularly professional wrestling, how simply in acting those things out, these types of tragic injuries can occur. And, you know, it just didn't happen here in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Go to Yakima, Washington or Dallas, Texas and you'll find two other cases where small children were killed because they were acting out professional wrestling.

And I can't tell you since this case has began how many people across this country have called me or e-mailed me and wrote me and told me about their children who were wrestling each other out in the schoolyard or out in the playground and broken arms and serious injuries that had to go to the hospital because of kids who were acting out professional wrestling that they saw on TV.

This judge, for whatever reason, handicapped us in terms of presenting the documented data that this type of media violence influences children to do things not intentionally, but in play. And I hope that that's going to be one of the issues on appeal. And hopefully we're going to get some good law out of this, that basically we're going to allow psychologists -- when we have all this data to back up this notion -- to allow them to testify about the causal connection between media violence and children acting out when they see.

QUESTION: So you still feel that Lionel, since he was just playing, shouldn't be spending even a day in jail?

LEWIS: I did not say that.

QUESTION: I'm asking?

LEWIS: You know, this child needs help. He needs counseling. And if he needs incarceration, it should be in a juvenile setting with other juveniles. But, you know, there's a big difference between that and life in prison. And that's the argument that we're making. You know, if we could snatch that plea bargain back, that plea bargain was fair then, and you know what? it's fair now.

What's happened other than a child has executed his constitutional rights to go to trial. What has happened since then? Nothing. The crime didn't become worse, the significance of the crime didn't become greater. This child simply had a jury of his peers hear his case and come back with a verdict. What has changed since the three years was offered between now in terms of what's fair? And hopefully, whether it's the governor, the appellate court, that this child's not going to -- I mean, I can't -- I'm, you know -- tonight, last night, I couldn't fathom it. Tonight I don't -- I just -- I'm not resigned, will not be resigned to the fact that this child is going to spend the rest of his natural life in prison.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) to be finished before you can move to clemency, or can you do that simultaneously?

LEWIS: We're hearing some issues that we don't have to wait. We've heard that the governor has indicated possibly that he wants all the appellate issues to be heard. But I'm not aware at this point -- I'm not a clemency lawyer, I don't do pardons for a living, OK, but there may be a way, actually, where we could seek the application prior to the appellate court's issuing a ruling, even though I've heard that that's rare. Usually they only consider pardons and clemency after the entire appellate process is over, which in this case may go on for a long time.

QUESTION: You've probably had clients before reject plea offers, go to trial, lose and get tougher sentences than what were offered. I mean, that's a fact of life as a defense attorney. Is it just different this time because it's a young kid? Because obviously you tell your client, well, you rolled the dice, you lost, that's the way it goes. I mean, it's different this time because it's a kid?

LEWIS: It's all the difference, because he's a kid. And that's why this case is so different, because he was 12 years old, because he was 12 years old at the time of the crime. He didn't have the maturity to understand the consequences of his actions, just like when he was in a situation of -- forced to be going to trial, doesn't understand -- have the maturity to understand the risk, you know?

When you're 12 years old, how you can understand the risk of going to trial? On the other hand, if you're 12 years old, how can you say, well, I'm going to prison three years away from my mom? And for something that, again -- I believe Lionel when he says he didn't mean to do it.

Anything else you want to say?

QUESTION: Mr. Rosenbaum, how soon do you expect to be in court?

ROSENBAUM: Well, there's 30 days in which to file the notice of appeal. Thereafter, approximately three months later, provided we have all the trial transcripts, the first brief would be filed, then the attorney general's office would file an answer brief. We would have an opportunity to file a reply brief. At that point, the 4th District Court of Appeals could entertain oral argument and could issue a ruling anytime after that. Typically, it takes six to 10 months.

QUESTION: Mr. Lewis, the prosecutor said that the plea offer was made repeatedly over a lengthy period of time. Why was it rejected?

LEWIS: Because everybody in the case did not believe that this child intentionally meant to hurt this little girl. And you know what? We don't lock up or sentence 12-year-old children for murder, for accidents.

Now, you know, we can throw it, oh, it's not an accident, it's not like a car crash. The bottom line when we say it's an accident means he didn't intend the harm. He intended to play, he intended to wrestle, but he did not intend the harm that was the consequence of that activity.

And that's the difference between a 12-year-old and an 18-year- old. An 18-year-old, presumably, knowing when he's throwing someone around like that, is going to know that there is the potential for harm or even death. A 12-year-old isn't. A 12-year-old is not a miniature adult; 12-year-olds don't think like we do. They don't think about consequences. They think about what's fun for the moment and how fun it is to throw someone across the room, to lift them up off -- every little kid you know loves to be lifted off the ground and to defy gravity to some extent.

QUESTION: Right, but now you're saying it was a fair deal and that, if you could, you'd go back in time and accept that deal.

LEWIS: Now that the child is in prison -- is facing life in prison without parole, that he's actually been convicted. QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

LEWIS: Of course.

OK, thank you very much.

ROSENBAUM: Thank you.

KEN PADOWITZ, ASST. STATE ATTORNEY: This murder of Tiffany Eunick was the result of a savage and brutal beating over the course of five minutes of a little 6-year-old girl. This was not children's play. This was not an accident.

The jury had the opportunity to hear all the evidence which the judge commented on -- the severe and significant injuries to Tiffany Eunick. She had to be crying out in pain. Based on the testimony at trial, she was. This was a horrific murder, and the grand jury had an opportunity to hear this evidence, and returned an indictment for first-degree murder.

As an assistant state attorney, I have an oath that I take to enforce the laws of the state of Florida. My personal feelings about what the sentence is that is prescribed by law is not material to my decision as to whether or not to present a case to a grand jury, in any murder case. I filed my oath. Whether it was difficult or upsetting, I filed my oath and presented this case to the grand jury after it became very clear that the Florida juvenile court system was not adequately prepared and set up to handle such a brutal and savage murder, the likes of which Lionel Tate committed in this case.

After that indictment was handed down, I offered a very reasonable and fair plea bargain, a good plea bargain. And it was rejected time and time again by the defense attorney and every member of the defense team who I talked to about this. I would go so far as to say that I repeatedly went back to the defense and inquired as to the fact that he's facing life in prison versus what I am offering, which gives him an opportunity to be rehabilitated. And it was turned down repeatedly, not only by Mr. Lewis, but by the other members of the defense team.

I had numerous conversations with Mr. Lewis and other people, other psychologists that were part of the defense team about their discussions about whether they actually talked to Lionel Tate and told him and his mother about the life sentence that he was facing, versus what I had offered. And I was told repeatedly by Mr. Lewis and other members of the defense they had, in fact, had those discussions with Lionel Tate and his mother, and they were not accepting the plea offer that I offered.

During the trial, besides the three doctors -- medical doctors -- that testified for the state, the medical examiner expert the defense put on in their own case testified under oath this was not an accident. Their own witness testified before this jury that Tiffany Eunick's death and her murder was not an accident.

(AUDIO DIFFICULTIES) QUESTION: ... and implied harsh words from the judge when he said to talk about travel to the governor to seek a reduction in charge or sentence, if accurate, is of tremendous concern to this court -- not only casts the prosecutor in a light totally inconsistent with his role in the criminal justice system, but makes the whole court process seems like a game. Comments?

PADOWITZ: Well, I believe that I have an oath as an assistant state attorney, as I indicated, to follow the law and to prosecute a case whether I agree with the law or not.

I also, though, understand that, based on my role as an assistant state attorney and a prosecutor, that according to the American Bar Association, prosecutors are ministers of justice, that we have a higher standard of ethics and consideration, not only to seek a conviction, but -- even greater -- to make sure that justice is done.

And in my role and capacity as a minister of justice, I made comments, not to Mr. Lewis, but to a few other individuals during the course of the year, when I was asked, Mr. Padowitz, what are you going to do if, in fact, the defense does not accept a plea offer, and this case is forced to trial by the defendant's right to have a trial. What are you going to do if the verdict comes back first-degree murder? And I spoke my mind.

I spoke my mind and indicated my personal feelings and my feelings professionally as a prosecutor acting as a minister of justice: that I did not believe that if that were to be the result, the lawful verdict for first-degree murder, the only lawful and legally correct sentence would be life in prison.

But acting in my capacity as a minister of justice, I can follow the legal procedures set out in the state of Florida for just such a situation, and I can request of the governor and members of the Cabinet to have a hearing, a clemency hearing, to hear evidence in testimony and consider granting clemency and reducing the sentence in this particular case.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

PADOWITZ: No, I absolutely will. Whether the governor and the Cabinet decides that that is the appropriate act on their part, that is going to be in someone else's hands.

QUESTION: What is your timetable, and how soon were you planning to do this?

PADOWITZ: I am prepared immediately to join with the defense, as I've indicated publicly before, and ask the governor and the Cabinet to hold a clemency hearing and reduce the sentence in this particular case.

That by no means is an indication that I don't believe that the jury's verdict was correct. It absolutely was correct. This was a first-degree murder; there is no doubt in my mind it was a first- degree murder committed by Lionel Tate, and he was correctly and legally sentenced for first-degree murder by this court.

But there is a procedure set up after this sentence that the governor can consider...

(AUDIO DIFFICULTIES)

... not 12. And over time, as one matures, he becomes more competent to understand the proceedings around him, not less competent, unless there is some other type of intervening cause.

There is no competency issues raised by the defense during the entire year prior to this trial.

In fact, if you look over in Broward County juvenile court on any given day, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of juveniles that are prosecuted that are Lionel Tate's age or younger that don't have the opportunity to have a cadre of trial lawyers and appellate lawyers and psychologists and psychiatrists working on a defense team. Those juvenile defendants -- rarely is competency an issue for those defendants.

Here we have a cadre, a whole pool of professionals and psychologists, and never once is Lionel Tate's competency an issue or question, until after he's convicted of first-degree murder. If that isn't a strong statement as to whether or not Lionel Tate is competent to be sentenced here today, I don't know what is, because those thousands of other juvenile defendants in Broward County don't have this opportunity, and they are found to be competent and to be sentenced.

The state had 500 days to file I guess to reduce the charge of second-degree murder. Why didn't that happen?

I'm sorry, I didn't understand the question.

QUESTION: The judge also mentioned, I believe, that the state had 500 days to reduce the charge to second-degree murder. Why did not that -- didn't happen?

PADOWITZ: I'm sorry, I didn't understand the question.

QUESTION: I believe the judge mentioned that the state had 500 days to reduce the charges to second-degree murder.

QUESTION: If he didn't believe that there was an adequate knowledge.

I need not remind them that they had over well over 500 days from date of indictment to date of jury selection to not only polish their case and repolish murder and second-degree manslaughter -- the latter charge, apparently, 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.

PADOWITZ: All right, well, let me respond to that. I did not want an indictment from the Broward County grand jury. I did my job and followed my oath as an assistant state attorney and presented the case to members of the community, on the grand jury, for them to make a decision about whether or not to indict Lionel Tate. They made that decision to indict him as an adult, and I do not believe that I should take away from those members of the community on the grand jury that legal authority to indict Lionel Tate as an adult.

What I did do was exercise my discretion as a prosecutor and offered a plea offer, less than first-degree murder to Lionel Tate and his attorney and his defense psychological team. And they did not accept that plea offer.

QUESTION: Wait, what's the difference between lowering the charge and offering a plea offer?

PADOWITZ: Well, once the grand jury found that there was probable cause to indict Lionel Tate for first-degree murder, at that point, an assistant state attorney would file the normal course of preparing and getting ready for trial, or trying to work the case out. And then go to trial if the plea offer is not accepted.

There was no reasonable grounds to reduce the grand jury's decision that there was probable cause to find Lionel Tate had committed the crime of first-degree murder.

QUESTION: Accepting the plea offer would have the same effect as lowering -- as lowering the charge, right? You are saying you did not want to interfere with the decision of the grand jury. And yet, you still made the plea offer, which would have interfered with the decision on the grand jury?

PADOWITZ: Well, the plea offer is in the inherent right of the prosecutor, by looking over the evidence and taking everything into consideration including the defendant's age.

What you're asking is, Should the charge have been reduced once the plea offer was not accepted, so that when the trial came, that that reduced charge would be, in fact, what the defendant was facing?

And my response is, is that the grand jury had spoken with their indictment. And that once we came to the trial stage, there was no grounds to reduce the charge for purposes of the trial.

Lionel Tate was, in my mind, correctly indicted for first-degree murder. He was correctly prosecuted for first-degree murder, during the trial. And the verdict by the jury spoke volumes that he, in fact, was guilty as charged beyond the exclusion of every reasonable doubt.

QUESTION: Why did you make the plea offer? What was the motive behind that? What were you seeking?

PADOWITZ: There were a number of different motives. I was seeking that justice was done. And when I think of justice, the first thing I think of in this case is Tiffany Eunick. Because I'm the only person, besides her family and her mother, that can get up here and speak for Tiffany Eunick. She was murdered. And justice has to encompass that horrible crime that Tate committed against Tiffany Eunick.

But I took into consideration, sparing Tiffany's family, for going through a trial. Sparing Tiffany's mother for having to sit in court every day and listen to the horrifying facts of the brutal murder that Lionel Tate committed against Tiffany.

That is always a consideration and a factor when offering a plea bargain. And it was so in this case as well.

QUESTION: If and when you go or communicate with the governor, you are going to say, in effect, there should be clemency for this young man for what reason?

PADOWITZ: I think that although Lionel Tate is 14 years old today, he was 12-and-a-half at the time he committed this murder. And that fact is something that is important, and should be considered by the governor in a clemency hearing.

I believe that, personally, not as assistant state attorney, because I cannot speak on behalf of the Broward State Attorney's Office on this issue. But personally as a citizen of the state of Florida, I think a judge should have discretion when a juvenile is prosecuted as an adult. Should have discretion in such cases to take the defendant's age into account.

The legislature did not provide such discretion. And as a citizen of the state of Florida, not as an assistant state attorney, I would lobby to have the law changed in Florida to give back discretion to judges, so that they have the ability when sentencing juveniles, who are prosecuted as adults, that they can take in all the facts and all the evidence into consideration.

QUESTION: So in effect, you will be saying that a crime committed by a 12-and-a-half-year-old should not be punishable by life in prison?

PADOWITZ: There may be instances that occur...

QUESTION: Well, this one?

PADOWITZ: ... and I believe that the judge should have had discretion here to sentence the defendant and take into account everything. And the law did not allow him that discretion.

QUESTION: Did the law allow you the discretion to not charge this young boy at 12 years old with first-degree murder?

PADOWITZ: As the oath that I took as assistant state attorney, my job and my duty in the homicide unit of the Broward State Attorney's Office, is to review murders, review cases and determine whether or not there are -- there is a violation of the law, and whether or not it is, in fact, a homicide, or a murder. And my review of this case indicated it clearly was a first-degree murder.

But before I went to the grand jury, I looked to the juvenile court system, the juvenile court system set up in Florida to handle juveniles who commit crimes. And realized that the system was totally inadequate to handle this particular case with this set of terrible facts, that occurred to Tiffany Eunick being beaten, stomped and kicked to death over the course of five minutes with over 35 injuries.

That system, the juvenile system was not set up for this type of horrific crime. And at that point, I decided it was members of the grand jury of Broward County, they should hear the evidence and make the decision on whether or not there is, in fact, a violation of the law, and whether or not Lionel Tate should be indicted as an adult or not charged.

QUESTION: Regarding judicial discretion, the judge had, you know, many motions in front of him. And I'm confused at this point now about what he had discretion on and what he didn't have discretion on. Why the motions if he had no discretion?

PADOWITZ: The judge has discretion in the state of Florida under the law to determine whether or not the weight and the sufficiency of the evidence was not adequate to support the verdict of first-degree murder.

Unlike the law in Massachusetts, which allows the judge to reduce the verdict for any reason that justice may require, that is not the law in the state of Florida. The judge has to specifically look to see if the weight and the sufficiency of the evidence supported the verdict. And Judge Lazarus clearly indicated, in overwhelming statements, that the evidence was...

HARRIS: We've been listening to the attorneys who've been involved in this case, this case of Lionel Tate, who's just sentenced about an hour or so ago to spend the rest of his life in prison. We heard his defense attorney say that they have seen slews of issues upon which an appeal will be filed in this case. And that we have not seen the last of Lionel Tate in a court -- in this particular courtroom.

But interestingly, we've been just listening to Ken Padowitz -- he is the assistant state's attorney who actually pressed this case. He says that he stands by his decision to bring first-degree murder charges against this boy who was 12 year -- 12 and a half years old at the time of the crime. He says he himself did not want an indictment, but -- by the Broward County grand jury. But it was his job to bring those charges up to the grand jury. And once that indictment was made, he felt he had to -- he says he had to follow through on this case. He believes that the judge should have had discretion in changing the sentence in such a case as this.

And as a reason -- and that with that as the reason, he says he is prepared right now to immediately join with the defense to meet with the governor to get -- to -- for a clemency hearing to reduce the sentence imposed on Lionel Tate.

We will continue to follow this story as it will continue to develop.

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