WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- An appeals court yesterday threw out a boy's conviction for beating a 6-year-old playmate to death in a case that focused attention on a Florida law that says juveniles convicted of first-degree murder must be locked away for the rest of their lives.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal ordered a new trial for Lionel Tate, 16, saying his mental competency should have been evaluated before his trial. He was tried as an adult and is serving life without parole at a maximum-security juvenile prison.
"Questions regarding Tate's competency were not lurking subtly in the background, but were readily apparent, as his immaturity and developmental delays were very much at the heart of the defense," Judge Barry J. Stone wrote.
Tate's lawyers argued that Tate, then 12, was imitating the pro wrestling moves he saw on television and did not mean to kill Tiffany Eunick. The 48-pound girl was punched, kicked, and stomped to death by Tate, who weighed 170 pounds.
The case has raised questions about a controversial Florida law that requires children convicted of first-degree murder to get life in prison without parole. Florida has been widely criticized for using the law to lock up children.
Tate's age at the time of the killing made him the youngest defendant in Florida to get a life-without-parole sentence under the law.
"I feel like somebody lifted a 200-pound weight off my head. It's just a beautiful thing, and I hope now that Lionel's going to have a chance at a life," said Jim Lewis, Tate's lawyer at his trial.
Broward County prosecutors said only that they are reviewing the ruling to determine whether to hold a new trial. Tate will remain behind bars in the meantime.
The boy and his mother had insisted he was innocent and turned down a plea bargain before the trial that would have given him a three-year sentence. If he had accepted the deal, he could have been out of prison 10 months ago.
Lewis said he hopes prosecutors offer a similar plea bargain and allow Tate to be released.
Defense attorney Richard Rosenbaum had argued before the appeals court that Tate was too immature to understand what was at stake during the trial.
The appeals court said at a minimum, the trial judge had an obligation to ensure that Tate understood the plea offer and the possibility of a life sentence if he rejected it. The three-judge panel noted that Tate had "significant mental delays" and a below-average IQ of about 90.
At his trial, Tate's lawyers argued that the boy thought he could body-slam people and they would walk away unhurt, just like his wrestling idols on television.
"I don't think Lionel intended to kill this little girl. I don't think Lionel intended to hurt this little girl," Lewis said. "This is not somebody who goes to school with a gun and tried to kill somebody. This is an innocent 12-year-old boy who played too rough."
The appeals court judges did not challenge the law that allowed Tate to get life without parole.
"Florida courts have long recognized that there is no absolute right requiring children to be treated in a special system for juvenile offenders," Stone wrote.
When the judges heard the appeal in September, however, they repeatedly questioned the law, which allows any person, regardless of age, to be prosecuted as an adult.
"There's no discretion exercised at all in this -- no societal judgment," Judge Martha C. Warner said. "Age is not a consideration."
Judge Fred A. Hazouri asked then what is to stop prosecutors from charging a 6-year-old with murder if the child gets angry at a Little League game, picks up a bat, and kills a teammate. "At what point do we say as a society that that is just too young?" Hazouri said.
Assistant Attorney General Debra Rescigno did not say what would be a reasonable age cutoff. She said Tate's life sentence was deserved because he beat the girl for several minutes.
Alarmed by a sharp rise in juvenile crime, Florida changed its laws during the late 1980s and 1990s to make it easier to try youths as adults and subject them to the same penalties. Florida leads the world in prosecuting juveniles as adults, according to the Juvenile Law Center.