FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A judge ruled Thursday that convicted child-killer Lionel Tate is competent to understand legal proceedings against him despite new revelations that Tate may be suffering mental illness from abuse as a child.
Broward County Circuit Judge Joel T. Lazarus said after listening to testimony from three psychologists that he "had heard nothing" to indicate that Tate was mentally incompetent.
Tate, once the youngest person in modern U.S. history to receive a life prison sentence, faces a return to prison for life if his probation is revoked for the 1999 murder of 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick when Tate was 12. Tate's attorneys initially claimed the girl was accidentally killed while Tate imitated pro wrestling moves he had seen on television.
Tate has asked to withdraw his guilty plea to last year's robbery of a pizza delivery man on grounds that he did not understand the consequences of the plea, which calls for a prison sentence of between 10 and 30 years but would allow him to avoid a life sentence for violating probation.
"I did conclude that he had the capacity to understand the range and nature of the penalties," said psychologist Donna Weiss, who examined Tate on April 11 on an order from Lazarus.
But Weiss did say that Tate, 19, could be suffering from "post-traumatic stress syndrome" because of abuse he allegedly suffered at the hands of his mother. Weiss testified that Tate told her he was severely abused from the time he was very young until about age 12 by Kathleen Grossett-Tate, who is a Florida Highway Patrol trooper.
"He could be suffering from a variety of mental illnesses," Weiss said, adding that Tate claims to suffer "nightmares and flashbacks" related to the abuse.
Neither Grossett-Tate nor her attorney, Michael Hursey, would comment about the allegations to reporters after the hearing.
Lazarus set a May 18 hearing to determine whether Tate will be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea in the pizza robbery case and possibly to impose a sentence. Also Thursday, the judge allowed Ellis Rubin to withdraw as Tate's attorney after Rubin said Tate refused to follow his legal advice.
"I regret that this 19-year-old young man will not abide by my 55 years of experience," Rubin said.
Tate told Lazarus that he intended to hire yet another private attorney to represent him.