FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Lionel Tate is competent to face probation violation charges that could end in a life sentence, a judge ruled Monday after two psychologists said the convicted killer was feigning hearing voices in his head.
Tate faked mental problems after an older Broward County Jail inmate convinced the 18-year-old it would help his case, one of Tate's attorneys acknowledged.
The other inmate, Sanders Hightower, wrote the letter signed by Tate that led to the competency hearing, Tate's lawyers said. Tate claimed in the letter to acting Broward County Circuit Judge Joel T. Lazarus that voices were telling him to commit suicide.
"It was a desperate attempt by a young man who was manipulated by this Hightower fellow," said Assistant Public Defender H. Dohn Williams, who represented Tate in the hearing.
The judge received the Dec. 2 letter three days before he was to start hearing evidence on whether he should revoke Tate's probation for beating to death 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick when Tate was 12. The letter has delayed Tate's court proceedings by at least two months, with the probation hearing now set for Feb. 27.
Tate's case received international attention in 2001, when he was believed to have become the youngest American ever sentenced to life behind bars. But an appellate court overturned his first-degree murder conviction for the girl's July 1999 slaying and a subsequent plea to second-degree murder led to his January 2004 prison release.
Tate was jailed in May after he was accused of robbing a pizza delivery driver at gunpoint. In addition to the robbery charge, Tate faces other probation violation charges, including allegations that he gave one of his friends a service revolver belonging to his mother, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper.
At the start of Monday's hearing, Williams told Lazarus that Tate wanted to waive the competency proceedings and that the letter was the product of Hightower's advice. Williams described Hightower, 34, as "a jailhouse lawyer," an inmate who prepares legal documents despite having no formal training.
Lazarus chose, though, to hear testimony from the two psychologists who had examined Tate. Tate's initial murder conviction was overturned when the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach found that Lazarus should have ordered tests to confirm the teen was competent to stand trial.
Psychologist Trudy Block-Garfield testified that Tate acted "totally inconsistent" with people who have auditory hallucinations. Tate would slap his ear and repeatedly turn his head and say, "Stop it," she said.
"I believe he was trying to lead me to believe that he was incompetent," she said.
Block-Garfield said when she asked Tate about his future, he said he didn't have a future. Tate's recognition that he was looking at a life sentence shows he is in touch with reality, the psychologist said.
A second psychologist, Barton Jones, said he found Tate's behavior during an evaluation session to be "rather manipulative."