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Breaking News

13-year-old Convicted of First-degree Murder in Wrestling Match Gone Wrong

Aired January 25, 2001 - 2:05 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to take this news program to Ft. Lauderdale now, where the judge, in the case of a 13-year-old boy charged in the death of a six-year-old girl, has just given instructions to his courtroom about the rendering of a verdict, which is expected momentarily in that death.

Mark Potter is down there.

And Mark, you've been closely following the story. Give us a brief idea of what's happening here.

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are waiting right now for the verdict from the jury which is in the room. And it should be coming to us very shortly, momentarily. In fact, it may be coming right now. All eyes are toward the jury box.

Let's listen in for a moment to see if indeed that's what's happening.

WATERS: Let's listen for a second.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In the Circuit Court of the 17 Judicial Circuit in for Broward County, Florida, Case Number 99, 14401cf10a, State of Florida versus Lionel Tate, Judge Joel Lazarus is presiding.

Verdict: We the jury find as follows as to this indictment, the defendant is guilty of murder in the first degree as charged in...

WATERS: All right, we've lost our signal there for a moment.

Mark Potter, guilty of first degree murder. This has been a highly controversial case. Bring us up to speed on the case.

POTTER: Yes, this is the most dramatic verdict that could have come. There were other options that the jury could have come up with. Second degree murder, manslaughter and, of course, an acquittal.

What makes this case so controversial are a couple of things. First of all, it involves a 13-year-old boy being tried in an adult court. He has now been convicted there of first degree murder, which means that technically, he could face a life-prison sentence. Now, most experts say that that severe a sentence is highly unlikely, given his age. But, nevertheless, this is a dramatic case, and now a dramatic verdict.

Thirteen-year-old Lionel Tate is accused of killing his playmate, six-year-old Tiffany Eunick, near Ft. Lauderdale in 1999.

There was never a question of whether he was responsible for her death. The question was whether it was an accidental killing, or whether it was intentional.

The defense always argued that this was accidental, that Lionel, who is much bigger than young Tiffany -- he weighed 166 pound; she weighed 48 pounds -- was playing too rough with her. They were playing wrestling. He was using some moves that he had seen on television, according to the defense. They were throwing each other around the room, punching. And it got out of hand, and she was fatally injured accidentally in this rough house play. That was the defense theory.

The prosecution, however, argued that the injuries that she sustained -- brain injuries, liver injuries, a broken rib, more than 30 bruises all over her body -- suggested that this was a brutal attack, an intentional attack that took more than five minutes to complete. And that, apparently, is the argument that was agreed to by the jury.

The other thing that made this controversial is that the defense argued that Lionel Tate, who was not developed properly in terms of his emotions -- he was emotionally immature -- had watched a lot of wrestling during his young life, professional wrestling on TV, and didn't fully understand. Even though he knew that professional wrestling is fake, he didn't fully understand that the moves used by the wrestlers, if used in real life on somebody much smaller, it could cause such serious injury.

And they blame...

WATERS: Mark Potter's satellite now has gone down.

Is that -- is that a momentary situation? Will he be back?

We lost him for now, OK.

We have a first-degree guilty verdict.

Do you want to do a background piece on this? All right, Mark, you're back. You -- can you pick up where you left off?

POTTER: Yes, I was saying that the defense was arguing that this -- that to some degree, professional wrestling is to blame here, in that this young boy watched a lot of wrestling. But because he was developmentally immature, emotionally, he didn't fully understand that you could really hurt somebody by using some of these moves.

And that's what was happening, when he was playing with young Tiffany. And he didn't realize how he could hurt this young girl by using some of the moves that he had seen on TV.

Now, the prosecution argued strongly against that, saying, no, wrestling is not on trial here. TV violence is not on trial here. There is no excuse for what happened here. This was murder, an intentional act of violence. The boy should have known, did know what was happening here. And the jury apparently agreed.

WATERS: What -- there's going to be considerable controversy, I would imagine, Mark, over a first-degree-murder conviction which suggests premeditation. The jury decided it was a brutal murder. But how does premeditation factor into the picture?

POTTER: The prosecution argued that if in the furtherance of child abuse -- the girl died -- it could be considered first degree murder. And so, while he may not have intended to kill her, but instead intended to injure her through child abuse, that could, if it resulted in her death, be considered first-degree murder. That's how they got to that point.

And, of course, the defense argued that what you had here was a child who didn't understand what was happening. To use child abuse laws in the case of a child playing with another child was ridiculous.

The defense attorney asked the jury to draw the line on this case, saying that this should not be tried in adult court. But, again, the jury went another way. And Lionel Tate, 13 years old, has been convicted of first-degree murder.

WATERS: Tried as an adult, convicted as an adult, will he be incarcerated as an adult, Mark?

POTTER: That's still to be determined. This is a peculiar case, again, involving a 13-year-old boy. As I said at the outset, technically, he can face life in prison. But a few believe that's what will happen. And there are facilities for juveniles, of course, in this state. And that's what most likely -- that's where most likely he will end up.

WATERS: All right, Mark Potter in Ft. Lauderdale, where the verdict has been rendered in the case of a 13-year-old boy, now standing convicted of first-degree murder in the death of six-year-old girl over a wrestling match gone terribly wrong.

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