FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Lionel Tate pleaded guilty Wednesday to the armed robbery of a pizza delivery man last spring, which could net him up to 30 years in prison but spare him a possible life sentence for violating probation in the 1999 killing of a young girl.
Tate, once the youngest person in modern U.S. history to receive a life prison sentence, said "Yes, sir" when Broward County Circuit Judge Joel T. Lazarus asked him if he would plead guilty to the robbery. Lazarus scheduled sentencing for April 3 and said Tate could receive between 10 and 30 years in prison.
Tate's attorney, Ellis Rubin, said the evidence in the pizza robbery case was "overwhelming" and that Tate got the best deal he could.
"This was the only professional and ethical thing to do," Rubin said. "I think justice was done today."
Tate also admitted that he had violated probation by possessing a gun during the robbery last May and that he violated laws by doing so. Lazarus said that any sentence he imposes for those violations would run concurrently with the robbery sentence.
Tate's mother, Florida Highway Patrol trooper Kathleen Grossett-Tate, said she was "hopeful" that Lazarus would impose the minimum 10-year sentence and that her son was optimistic about his future once he is finally released.
"He's as OK as he can be," she said. "It's very emotional."
Prosecutor Chuck Morton said Tate accepted the plea deal because "he had an opportunity to avoid spending the rest of his life in jail." Morton added that the family of the girl Tate killed in 1999 had agreed to the plea bargain.
Tate, dressed in a black-and-white striped jail jumpsuit, said little in the brief hearing except to answer the judge's questions and will continue to be held without bail.
The guilty plea is the latest twist in the long-running case of Tate, who was convicted of killing 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick when he was only 12.
Tate, now 19, did not have to be convicted of the robbery for Lazarus to decide he must go to prison, but the guilty plea settles that matter.
Tate came to national attention after Eunick's murder at his mother's home. The boy's lawyers initially claimed that the girl, who suffered skull fractures and a lacerated liver, was accidentally killed when Tate imitated pro wrestling moves he'd seen on television.
He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in 2001, but an appeals court in 2004 tossed out the conviction and sentence after ruling that it wasn't clear Tate understood what was happening to him. He then pleaded guilty to second-degree murder as part of a deal with prosecutors and was sentenced to 10 years' probation.
Lazarus added five more years to the probation term after Tate was arrested in September 2004 for carrying a knife with a four-inch blade. The judge warned Tate then that he had "zero tolerance" for future violations.
But police say it didn't take long for Tate to find trouble again.
Last May 23, Tate called Domino's Pizza from a friend's apartment and ordered four pizzas. A friend later told police that Tate, armed with a revolver, hid behind the apartment door when the delivery man arrived with the order.
The delivery man, who dropped the pizzas and ran after seeing the gun, identified Tate as the perpetrator and Tate's fingerprints were found on the pizza boxes, police said. There were also text messages on Tate's cell phone planning the robbery.
Tate was also suspected in the theft of weapons from his mother.