I-Team: Lionel Tate Talks From Behind Bars

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.”

More from Michele Gillen
  • Theresa Corcovelos

    Michele, THANK YOU so much for believing us, for taking the time and having the tenacity to see this through, you are a professional in every sense of the word. He is absolutely sincere in his heartfelt apology to Deweese, and she is such a lovely, classy lady, very gracious in her forgiveness of him. And I don’t know if this will come out in subsequent interview airings, but he did not commit the pizza robbery that he is serving time for, the boy who did was never charged.

  • http://workmancer.wordpress.com workmancer

    I’m happy he’s in jail. He blew 2 chances doing stupid things. Killing his cousin and then robbing a pizza delivery man. I have no sympathy for him. I’d like to find out what made him so dumb.

  • ashley diaz

    Hehas nothing to lose and everything to gain in trying to get viewer sympathy. What was your purpose in rehashing this story? There are more deserving issues to be heard. Evil needs to be punished, I wouldn’t want this person to be released to cause more chaos and heartbreak. Leave well enough alone.

    • http://workmancer.wordpress.com workmancer

      Absolutely Ashley. Mayve if enough people see this and write the parole board… good catch.

    • Janita Smith

      How can you say he is evil? He was 12 years old when this happened. When I was 12, I did not understand many things. Do you truly believe that this child said in his head “Hey, I am going to play so rough with this little girl that I am going to kill her!”? This was not the first time they played together and practiced wrestling moves. Kids are very honest at 6 years old and if she was being hurt, she surely would have said something. Evil requires INTENT to destroy a life. I do not believe he meant to hurt that little girl. He surely does not deserve life in prison. His crime was accidental, unlike the other criminals in prison that have intentionally raped, murdered, and maimed several people before being caught.

      • ADMIN

        Janita…you are aware that he was released from prison, on parole…and was sent back to complete his sentence after he was convicted of another crime, and was judged to have broken parole, which is why is is serving time for that crime (committed as an adult) and the balance of his life sentence on the murder charge.

  • Marie Evans

    no matter which way you look at this,its very sad. 2 young lives lost forever, 2 families distroyed No “winners” here.qqqqqqqqq2

    • http://workmancer.wordpress.com workmancer

      Sometimes you need to cut your losses Marie. Better 2 families than if the robery of that pizza delivery guy went wrong and that guy ended up dead.

  • mimi

    I agree with Marie Evans, its a tragedy. Its very sad

  • Poor Girl

    No mention about when everyone came to his side and got him released from jail only to have him rob a pizza delivery guy with a gun?

    • http://workmancer.wordpress.com workmancer

      LOL no. Blew his second chance. It was bad that he got life in jail as a 12 year old for killing a 6 year old… when there are other kids who shoot to murder their siblings or younger kids yet they don’t get life. Weird.

      • Poor Girl

        Agreed, but it was pretty brutal the way he killed her. I think I’d be happier though with him in jail the rest of his life. It didn’t take him long once he was released to rob someone with a gun and I don’t think at all he is sorry for what he did in both cases.

  • Joe Carrillo

    Theresa, you are right, he didn’t commit the pizza roberry. Lionel is soft spoken and sincere. He has always been sincere. Those who judge him don’t know the truth. They do so by listening to the spin the authorities have put on this case. Time will tell. Great job of reporting by just letting him speak.

    • Theresa Corcovelos

      Thanks Joe, it’s infuriating how everything you uncovered about this case is ignored, and criminal how the SA KNEW he didn’t do it and still refused to arrest and charge that Willie kid. “Bringing it back up” is necessary because he is serving time for a crime he didn’t commit.

  • http://kickassfacts.com/25-interesting-facts-about-florida/ 25 Interesting Facts About Florida | KickassFacts.com

    […] 21. The youngest United States citizen to receive a life sentence was Florida’s Lionel Tate, due to accidentally killing his neighbor while wrestling. At the time of the accident, he was only 12 years old. – Source […]

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