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Judge delays court after teen's suicide threat

Will await hearing on competency for Lionel Tate

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A hearing that could mean a return to prison for convicted killer Lionel Tate, once the youngest person in modern US history sentenced to life behind bars, was postponed yesterday after he sent the judge a letter threatening suicide.

Tate, convicted at age 13 of beating and stomping to death a 6-year-old girl, was set to appear before Circuit Judge Joel T. Lazarus, who could send him back to prison for as much as life if he finds that Tate violated probation. Tate is accused of robbing a pizza delivery man at gunpoint.

However, the judge said that because of the letter, he decided to wait until after a Dec. 19 competency hearing for Tate.

In the letter, which the judge received Friday, Tate said public defender H. Dohn Williams did not understand ''my mental condition." He continued, ''I stated to him before that I was hearing voices and that I wanted to kill myself."

Asked about Tate's claims, Williams said, ''I can't tell you what Lionel thinks."

Prosecutors declined to comment.

Tate, now 18, has not attempted suicide in the Broward County jail but has had disciplinary problems, said sheriff's spokeswoman Liz Calzadilla-Fiallo.

Tate was 12 when he killed Tiffany Eunick, a family friend, in 1999. His lawyers initially claimed the girl died accidentally while the 160-pound boy was imitating wrestling moves he had seen on television, but experts said the girl died of a beating.

He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in 2001 in a case that stirred debate over Florida's tough stand against juvenile crime. In 2004, an appeals court threw 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 released from prison and given 10 years' probation.

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