FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Lionel Tate, convicted for stomping a girl to death when he was 12, pleaded guilty Wednesday to robbing a pizza deliveryman.
Tate risked spending the rest of his life in prison if he kept fighting the criminal cases stacked against him, but until Wednesday morning he had refused to take a plea deal.
The 19-year-old told his lawyer Tuesday that he wanted to gamble that a judge wouldn't take away his freedom forever. But shortly before a hearing was to begin Wednesday, Tate changed his mind, his lawyer said.
What followed was another major day in court for the young man who gained wide attention in 2001, when he was sentenced to life behind bars.
Tate pleaded guilty to robbing the deliveryman at gunpoint for four 14-inch pizzas, worth less than $34. The plea deal calls for him to receive a prison term of 10 to 30 years when acting Broward Circuit Judge Joel T. Lazarus sentences him April 3.
"The boy faced consecutive life sentences if he had gone to trial and had been found guilty," said Ellis Rubin, Tate's lawyer. "The proof was overwhelming. I've had this case since December and I've gone over everything. This was the only professional and ethical thing to do."
Tate, wearing a striped jail jumpsuit, said nothing at the hearing, other than answering Lazarus' questions with "Yes sir."
Rubin said Tate decided to take the plea deal after prosecutor Chuck Morton agreed Wednesday morning that Tate could appeal a recent court ruling in the case.
That ruling came Friday, when Lazarus rejected Rubin's argument that Tate's original murder indictment was unconstitutional and the last seven years of court proceedings should be nullified.
"Lionel wanted to make sure he had the right to appeal," Rubin said.
Tate was 12 when he beat to death 6-year-old playmate Tiffany Eunick on July 28, 1999, inside his mother's Pembroke Park town home. Tate's January 2001 trial gained national prominence as his defense lawyers argued he was mimicking pro wrestlers when he attacked Tiffany.
After a jury convicted Tate of first-degree murder, Lazarus had no choice under state law but to sentence him to life in prison. The sentence sparked a fierce debate over whether juveniles should be tried as adults.
A state appellate court overturned Tate's conviction in December 2003, resulting in a plea deal to second-degree murder that allowed him to walk out of jail a month later.
But nine months after that, Tate was arrested for violating his probation when he was found outside his home at 2 a.m. with a knife. He spent 52 days in jail before Lazarus agreed to release him on probation again.
Tate's final arrest came May 23, 2005, when he robbed pizza deliveryman Walter Ernesto Gallardo.
In addition to facing the robbery case, Tate was accused of a series of probation violations, including allegations that he gave one of his friends a service revolver owned by his mother, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper.
His mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate, said she supported her son taking the plea offer.
"If it gives my son a chance to get out, yes, I am in favor of it," she said.
Under the plea deal, Tate admitted to two probation violations -- robbing the deliveryman and possessing a gun -- in exchange for prosecutors dropping four other alleged violations.
Tate also pleaded guilty to a criminal mischief charge for banging his cell door so hard he broke the window. He will not have to serve additional jail time for the August incident.
Morton declined to comment on what sentence he would recommend for Tate.
Tiffany Eunick's mother could not be reached for comment. Morton said she had signed off on the plea deal.
Gallardo, the pizza deliveryman, said he bore no grudge toward Tate.
"I feel very sorry for him because he's still young," Gallardo said.