MIAMI -- A teenager whose life sentence for beating a 6-year-old playmate to death was thrown out signed documents yesterday pleading guilty to second-degree murder in a deal that could get him out of prison as early as this month.
Lionel Tate, 16, signed the papers at a maximum-security juvenile prison in Okeechobee, where he is being held for the 1999 death of Tiffany Eunick. Tate was 12 when he punched, kicked, and stomped the 48-pound girl to death.
His first-degree murder conviction and life sentence were overturned last month, and prosecutors offered the same plea deal Tate and his mother declined before trial. In the deal, Tate would be sentenced to three years in prison -- most of which he has already served -- plus one year of house arrest and 10 years' probation.
"Just knowing it's all been signed, I'm very happy for him that he and his mom are on the same wavelength and moving forward," said Richard Rosenbaum, Tate's attorney.
A judge still has to ratify the plea deal, a process that could take a few weeks, Rosenbaum said. No hearings have been scheduled, but Rosenbaum said he is hopeful Tate could be released by the end of the month.
The teen's mother, Highway Patrol Trooper Kathleen Grossett-Tate, said the decision to sign was a difficult one and she would have preferred that her son pleaded guilty to manslaughter. She said Tiffany's death was accidental.
"He did not receive a fair trial the first time," Grossett-Tate said. "For us to go back to trial again, I know he would not get a fair trial."
After the signing, she said, "It's about time he comes home."
A message left for Ken Padowitz, who prosecuted Tate and now represents Tiffany's mother in private practice, was not returned yesterday. He has said that the girl's mother was pleased that Tate was accepting responsibility for the murder for the first time. Grossett-Tate was baby-sitting the girl in her Pembroke Park home at the time of her death.