Fort Lauderdale, Fla. A boy who says he was imitating body-slamming pro wrestlers when he killed a little girl at age 12 was sentenced to life in prison without parole Friday after a judge refused to reduce his first-degree murder conviction.
Tears rolled down Lionel Tate's cheeks as the boy, now 14, was led away in handcuffs and leg shackles to begin serving the sentence, which was mandatory under a tough-on-crime Florida law enacted in the mid-1990s.
Tate becomes one of the youngest defendants in the United States ever to be sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
In imposing sentence, Judge Joel Lazarus called the slaying of 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick "cold, callous and indescribably cruel."
Tate was found guilty Jan. 25 of beating Tiffany to death at his home. Tiffany suffered a fractured skull, a lacerated liver and more than 30 other injuries on July 28, 1999, from being punched, kicked, stomped and thrown.
During the trial, the defense argued that the 170-pound boy did not mean to kill the 48-pound girl and thought he could body-slam people and they would walk away unhurt, just like his wrestling idols on television.
On Friday, the judge rejected a defense request to throw out Tate's conviction or reduce it to second-degree murder or manslaughter, saying: "The evidence of Lionel Tate's guilt is clear, obvious and indisputable."
The judge also questioned the defense argument that Tate was imitating pro wrestlers. "It is inconceivable that such injuries could be caused by roughhousing or horseplay or by replicating wrestling moves," he said.
Tate's mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper who described Tiffany's death to the judge as a "tragic accident," showed no reaction to the sentence. Several family friends and relatives wailed.
Defense attorney Jim Lewis had tried to put pro wrestling and television itself on trial. But the judge blocked him from calling as witnesses wrestling stars Hulk Hogan and The Rock, or from summoning psychologists to testify about the effects of pro wrestling on children.
Lewis said that he will appeal and also ask Gov. Jeb Bush to reduce the sentence.