Lionel Tate. His name and face were a constant on the evening news a dozen years ago after he was arrested for the murder of a 6-year old playmate, Tiffany Eunick, who his mother was babysitting.
In fact, it was Tiffany’s mother who he sent a message to when CBS4 Chief I-Team Reporter Michele Gillen met with him for his first ever TV interview from behind bars.
“If you could reach out and really send a message to someone who would it be?” Chief I-Team reporter Michele Gillen asked as she sat across from Lionel Tate in a cavernous reception room in a North Florida prison for his first ever interview.
“I just want to tell her that I am sorry. Because, that is all she ever wanted to hear from me. I just want to let her know that I am sorry,” said Tate publicly for the first time.
Gillen sat across from Lionel Tate in a cavernous reception room in a North Florida prison.
Breaking more than a decade of silence, Florida prison inmate 24475 spoke in a barely audible whisper after years, he says, of living in prison and nearly dying in prison.
Before arriving at the Swannee Correctional Institution outside of Live Oak, Florida, Gillen had read dozens of letters Tate wrote, including several about how he tried to kill himself.
When he first reached out to Gillen last year, he had written that he was “scared” because of what was going on in his life behind bars at that time.
“What did you try to hang yourself with?” Gillen asked.
“With a sheet,” Tate recalled of a time he paints as a dark and dangerous journey, including months back to back, in solitary confinement.
In a one hour conversation he detailed his life and being disciplined for violations in his former prison. It was an experience which Tate summed up as, “hell on earth.”
At 24-years old, few will recognize his “grown up” face, but his name remains notorious around the world.
He was the youngest American child ever sentenced to life in prison without parole, for murder. He was just 12-years old at the time of the death. It was a sensational trial during which he tells Gillen, “I was scared. I was sorry then and I am sorry now.”
At the heart of the trial was the murder of his 6-year old playmate Tiffany Eunick, which he has long maintained was an accident.
Gillen asked him what he remembered about Tiffany.
“I remember her smile. And how we used to play before she died. She was healthy and pretty. So full of life.” Tate said with a rare and broad smile.
He told Gillen that while his mother, who was baby sitting Tiffany, was in an upstairs bedroom, he was mimicking what he loved to watch on TV… wrestling. Tragically, Tiffany, a waif of a 40-pound little girl, was fatally injured and the world was stunned.
The medical examiner’s report on the child’s death described brutal injuries inflicted with tremendous force.
Asked by Gillen to explain those injuries, Tate told her,”We were playing. We were playing and I guess I was rough and she passed away.”
Following those words he quickly wiped a tear away that fell upon his right cheek.
“I just feel bad about the situation” he said.
While he met with Gillen in prison, he offered a public plea to Tiffany’s mother, who’s heartbreak seared the soul of the South Florida community and many across the nation.
At her daughter’s funeral Deweese Eunick read these words to the mourners back in 1999.
“Then I realize that she isn’t there. My heart again begins to tear. I cry so hard it makes my headache. Questioning God why my child he had to take.”
Does Tate ask for her forgiveness?
“Yes ma’am I do. I do ask for her forgiveness and I pray that she does forgive me,” Tate urged 12-years after the little girls death.
Reached by telephone and asked her response to Tate now requesting her forgiveness and asking this message be delivered to her, Eunick responded, ” I forgave him many years ago.”
Asked by Gillen why being forgiven would mean so much to Tate, he said, “Because her daughter lost her life. It is something that is on my conscience every day when I wake up.”