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How Young is Too Young For a Life Sentence?

Aired September 2, 2003 - 19:35   ET

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

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Elsewhere in Florida, attorneys are appealing the sentence of a boy sent to prison for life without parole for a crime he committed when he was 12 years old.
CNN's John Zarrella is in West Palm Beach covering the case.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The attorney for the state defended Lionel Tate's murder conviction, telling the appeals court that what Tate did to 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick was no accident. Tate's mother sat, hands folded, listening to the stinging words.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Little Tiffany Eunick was beaten to death. And the beating lasted at a minimum of five minutes during which she was kicked, punched and stomped to death.

ZARRELLA: Tate was convicted at age 14 and sentenced to life without parole. The defense contended Lionel was play-acting wrestling moves he saw on TV when Tiffany hit her head. Tate's current attorney, Richard Rosenbaum, argued that Lionel should have been given a competency evaluation.

RICHARD ROSENBAUM, TATE'S ATTORNEY: First of all, Lionel's young age. He was 12 years old at the time. Lionel's mental age -- depending on which doctor you believe, he was either 1.9 to 4 years below that. His immaturity, his lack of development, all this was borne out by the record through pretrial proceedings.

ZARRELLA: The three judge panel questioned whether a felony murder charge should be applied to a 12-year-old.

JUDGE FRED HAZOURI, 4TH DIST. CT. OF APPEAL: That's the difficulty that I'm having. At what point we as a society say that's beyond the -- what age?

ZARRELLA: Lionel's attorneys are hoping the panel finds sufficient reason to either reverse the conviction or order a new trial.

John Zarrella, CNN, West Palm Beach, Florida.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: So the question is how young is too young to be held responsible for murder?

Joining us now from Fort Lauderdale, Florida are Richard Rosenbaum, Lionel Tate's current attorney, and Ken Padowitz, the original prosecutor in the case.

Gentleman, appreciate both of you joining us tonight.

Richard, let me start with you. You are basically asking a judge not only to -- you're trying to appeal this case, trying to appeal the decision, get a retrial or some sort of clemency hearing from Governor Bush. What do you think is most likely to happen? What's your best shot?

ROSENBAUM: Well, we're really traveling on two separate avenues. The first is the direct appeal through the legal system, trying to appeal the purely legal issues that are involved in the case. The second involves clemency and our request that Governor Bush grant clemency to this child.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: But what's your best shot? I mean, what -- you're arguing your appeal -- what? -- that there were mistakes made in the original trial or that the representation wasn't right? Or -- I mean, because it seems now that this young man has changed his story about what happened that night.

ROSENBAUM: Well, his story really never changed. He didn't testify at trial. I thing his story is more fully developed. Part of that is because he really wasn't competent when he went to trial, he wasn't able to assist his counsel...

COOPER: You're saying he wasn't competent simply because of his age?

ROSENBAUM: Well, not just because of his age. His lack of experience with the judicial system, his immaturity, the complexity of the case.

COOPER: Right, which would all be attributed largely to his age.

Ken, let me bring in you -- bring you in here. Original prosecutor on this case. Was the trial fair? I mean, are there grounds for an appeal here?

KEN PADOWITZ, ORIGINAL PROSECUTOR: The trial was absolutely fair.

You know, in this country we're starting to move away from a standard of a fair trial to the standard of a perfect trial. And I don't believe that you can ever have a perfect trial.

This was a fair trial. Lionel Tate had a fair jury of 12 people and they were convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he punched, kicked and beat this little girl to death over the course of five minutes with such forces that experts testified she basically -- it was equal to falling out of a second or third floor building.

She had 35 injuries. So this was a horrific murder and the jury found it as such.

COOPER: But Ken, it's interesting. You -- my understanding is you support the move for clemency.

PADOWITZ: Absolutely. I believe that the trial was fair and the conviction should be upheld by this appellate court. But I believe the sentence, although legally correct for life in prison, is not appropriate in a civilized society.

I believe that the governor should hold a clemency hearing and that he should consider lowering the sentence to life in prison with automatic eligibility for parole, giving Lionel Tate the key to his release. He could be out in six months, six years or 60 years under that scenario, showing that he's rehabilitated and ready to come back into society.

COOPER: Richard, how is Lionel Tate doing in prison?

ROSENBAUM: Well, he's doing much better. He has matured during the time that he's been there. He's in school. There's not a lot to do when you're stuck jail and only get to see your mom once a week.

So he's doing better in school. He got three A's and two B's last time. He is studying cooking, which is what he wants to do. And he's getting some exercise. And he's lost an awful lot of weight. It's a tough way to grow up behind bars, behind the barbed wire.

COOPER: It's definitely a tough thing and a tough crime at that. Richard Rosenbaum appreciate you joining us.

And Ken Padowtiz, thank you very much .

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