ORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Jan. 25 A 13-year-old South Florida boy who said he accidentally killed a 6- year-old girl while imitating professional wrestling moves was convicted of first-degree murder today and faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The boy, Lionel Tate, was 12 when he lifted 48-pound Tiffany Eunick into the air and dropped her onto a table in his living room in July 1999. He was tried as an adult in Broward County Circuit Court and will be sentenced on March 2. The jury of 10 women and 2 men deliberated about three hours.
The boy, who will turn 14 on Tuesday, showed no emotion as the verdict was announced but cried as he was led handcuffed from the courtroom by sheriff's deputies.
"He understands that it is the worst possible verdict he can get," said his lawyer, James Lewis, who plans to appeal.
The victim's mother, Deweese Eunick-Paul, a single parent, did not come to court to hear the verdict, on the advice of her minister, the prosecutor said.
"I think what happened in this case was a horrible, terrible tragedy all the way around," said Ken Padowitz, who prosecuted the case. "There are no winners in this case, only losers."
The case gained national attention shortly after Tiffany died because of the unusual strategy Mr. Lewis used in defending the boy, contending that he had simply been engaged in child's play that went wrong.
Mr. Lewis told the jury that Lionel was emulating the wrestlers he regarded as heroes when he kicked and body slammed Tiffany after his mother left the two unattended.
The World Wrestling Federation issued a statement today saying that the defense's strategy linking the case to professional wrestling was "a contrived hoax" and that the jury saw through it.
Mr. Padowitz told the jury that Tiffany's death was no accident. He described her injuries, which included a lacerated liver, broken ribs and a skull fracture, as similar to those she would have sustained by falling from a three-story building.
Lionel wanted to get rid of Tiffany because he had a crush on her mother, Mr. Padowitz told the jury. Ms. Eunick-Paul testified that when she told Lionel that her daughter was dead, he shrugged and rolled his eyes. The next day, he asked Ms. Eunick-Paul if he could live with her and have Tiffany's toys, she testified.
The prosecution also invoked a Florida child-abuse law under which the jury did not have to conclude that the boy had meant to kill, only that his actions were intentional and abusive. Mr. Lewis argued that that law should not have applied to this case.
Lionel's mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, testified that her son was no killer. She turned down a prosecution offer that Lionel plead guilty to second-degree murder and serve 3 years in a juvenile detention center and 10 years' probation.
Ms. Grossett-Tate left the courtroom in tears after the verdict was announced and declined to comment. "This is her only child and she is very hurt," Mr. Lewis said.
Lionel presented a contradiction of images in court. Large for his age at 170 pounds, he also has a pudgy, baby face. He sat during much of the trial in neat slacks and shirt-sleeves seemingly taking notes.
Often he was simply drawing pictures. It was those two images a man-child who looked old enough to know the consequences of his actions yet who seemed still to live in a world of make-believe that the jury was confronted with as it deliberated.
"I think one of the most difficult things this jury had to face was overwhelming sympathy," Mr. Padowitz said. "There was a tremendous amount of sympathy for Tiffany Eunick, who was killed, and sympathy for a defendant who was 12 1/2 when he beat this little girl to death."