FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Lionel Tate became the youngest person sentenced to life in prison in modern US history when he was convicted at age 13 in the killing of a 6-year-old girl. He served three years in prison, but was released on probation last year after his first-degree murder conviction was thrown out.
Now, despite that fresh start, he could be going back behind bars for life after he was accused in May of robbing a delivery man at gunpoint of four pizzas worth $33.60.
Gun possession is enough to revoke probation, and Broward County Circuit Judge Joel T. Lazarus, who will hear the case set to begin today, could send Tate, now 18, back to prison whether or not he is convicted of the new charges.
''The state has only to put on evidence to satisfy the conscience of the court that there was a violation," said Tate's lawyer, H. Dohn Williams. ''You don't have to prove that a crime was committed."
To many juvenile justice specialists, Tate is a symbol of the difficulty that the justice system has dealing with children who commit serious crimes. Rather than seeking to rehabilitate them, Florida and dozens of other states have laws permitting them to be tried and punished as adults.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported in October that at least 2,225 people are serving life sentences without parole in US prisons for crimes they committed under age 18. Six of them were 13 when their crimes were committed; none were 12 as Tate was.
''We don't seem capable of recognizing that our traditional approach to crime and justice often fails with adolescents," said Jeffrey A. Butts, a research fellow at the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall Center for Children. ''Prison by itself doesn't do a lot to change behavior or improve someone's chances of success."
Tate killed Tiffany Eunick, a neighbor his mother was baby-sitting, on July 28, 1999. His lawyers initially claimed the girl died accidentally while the 160-pound boy was imitating wrestling moves he saw on television, but specialists said the girl died of skull fractures and a lacerated liver suffered in a beating that lasted one to five minutes.
He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2001. In 2004, an appeals court tossed out the conviction after finding that it was not clear whether Tate understood what was happening to him. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to time served and 10 years' probation.
His mother, Florida Highway Patrol trooper Kathleen Grossett-Tate, insisted that he stay with her. Grossett-Tate has refused repeated requests for an interview.
He was arrested in September 2004, when police found him outside at 2 a.m. carrying a knife with a 4-inch blade. Lazarus added five years' probation and warned that he would have ''zero tolerance" for future violations.
On May 12, Grossett-Tate left for a 10-day Army Reserve assignment, leaving Tate home alone. Police later found that her three handguns were taken from a closet in her room. Only two have been recovered; none has been conclusively linked to the pizza robbery.
On May 23, Tate allegedly called Domino's Pizza from a friend's apartment, ordering four pizzas. The friend later told police that Tate, armed with a revolver, hid behind the door when delivery man Walter Gallardo arrived. When Gallardo spotted the gun, he ran and called police.
Gallardo, 44, identified Tate as the assailant and Tate's fingerprints were found on the pizza boxes.
Investigators also discovered that Tate had exchanged cellphone text messages with another friend earlier that day asking if the friend wanted to ''bust that lick" -- a street term for robbery.
Tate faces six charges of probation violation. The judge could give him no prison time or give him a life sentence.