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Even though 16-year-old Lionel Tate’s murder case ended over the weekend with a plea deal, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist is warning that the appellate court ruling overturning Tate’s conviction could jeopardize other prosecutions of juveniles in the adult system. In its Dec. 10 ruling, a three-judge panel of the state’s 4th District Court of Appeal unanimously held that Tate’s due process rights were violated because he was never given a competency hearing before standing trial as an adult for the first-degree murder of 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick. A competency hearing would have tested Tate’s ability to understand the legal proceedings and aid in his own defense. Legal experts say the ruling sets an important precedent for trying children as adults in Florida. Although Tate’s guilty plea closes his case, the 4th DCA’s ruling remains binding on trial judges throughout the state. The question of whether adolescents have the mental ability to fully grasp the legal consequences of their actions arises in many murder cases involving juvenile defendants. “Almost all young kids are going to have issues of competency,” said Bradley Collins, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., juvenile criminal defense lawyer. “Does a 12-year-old get the whole idea of constitutionality and giving up legal rights? I don’t think they ever get it.” Late last month, the attorney general’s office filed a motion for rehearing with the 4th DCA, calling the court’s decision a “dangerous precedent.” Crist argued that the decision gives children special protected status and usurps the Florida Legislature’s authority in determining who can be tried for certain crimes. Short of a rehearing, Crist asked the court to certify the issue to the Florida Supreme Court as a question of great public importance. Now, Crist has agreed to drop the motion for reconsideration once Tate’s plea is finalized. Tate is scheduled for a bond hearing before Broward Circuit Judge Joel Lazarus on Jan. 26. Tate is expected to enter his plea and be sentenced on Jan. 29. “This court’s holding essentially creates a per se rule that every young child tried as an adult must be evaluated for competency,” Assistant Attorney General Debra Rescigno of West Palm Beach, Fla., wrote in the motion for rehearing, filed Dec. 29. “Although this court’s opinion later retreats from any per se rule, the analysis employed, facts relied upon and resolution of the matter establish that a per se rule has been created.” Some legal experts disagree with Crist’s contention that the 4th DCA’s ruling creates a broad mandate for competency evaluations of juveniles. That’s because the appellate panel considered factors specific to Tate’s case, such as his borderline IQ and apparent lack of interest in the trial proceedings. But the experts do agree that the ruling gives defense attorneys extra support in requesting competency hearings for their young clients. Although Tate’s trial lawyer, James Lewis of Fort Lauderdale, never requested a pretrial competency hearing, the 4th DCA ruled that Judge Lazarus should have ordered one because of Tate’s young age and lack of exposure to the justice system. “Even if a child of Tate’s age is deemed to have the capacity to understand less-serious charges, or commonplace juvenile court proceedings, it cannot be determined, absent a hearing, whether Tate could meet competency standards incident to facing a first-degree murder charge,” Judge Barry Stone wrote for the court. Judges Martha Warner and Fred Hazouri concurred. But the 4th DCA stopped short of ordering competency hearings for all juveniles before they can be prosecuted as adults. “We recognize that competency hearings are not, per se, mandated simply because a child is tried as an adult,” 4th DCA Judge Stone wrote. “However, in light of Tate’s age, the facts developed pre-trial and post-trial, and his lack of previous exposure to the judicial system, a competency hearing should have been held, particularly given the complexity of the legal proceedings.” Eric Schwartzreich, a juvenile criminal defense attorney, said the 4th DCA opinion serves as a strong reminder that many young defendants need competency hearings to ensure that their constitutional rights are protected. “It’s a significant ruling because now competency is going to be in the forefront of everyone’s mind,” said Schwartzreich, a partner at Bushel Carter Schwartzreich & Yates in Fort Lauderdale. “In juvenile cases where the issue might have been borderline, a lot more attorneys and judges are going to decide on their own that it needs to be explored.” The attorney general’s office agrees that the ruling is important, and it fears the consequences. It is the Legislature’s prerogative to “treat those who commit the most serious crimes differently,” Assistant Attorney General Rescigno argued in her motion for rehearing. THE PROSECUTION PROCESS Under Florida Statute 985.225, juveniles who are charged with crimes punishable by death or life imprisonment are automatically prosecuted in adult court if they are indicted by a grand jury. If they are convicted, they face adult penalties. There is no minimum age in Florida for juveniles being tried in adult court for murder. Alternatively, in cases other than first-degree murder, the Florida Legislature in 1994 gave prosecutors rather than judges the discretion to decide which juvenile cases to send directly to adult court for prosecution. Under the law, prosecutors have the power to “direct file” felony juvenile cases into adult criminal court for offenses ranging from manslaughter to carjacking without conducting a waiver hearing before a juvenile judge. Tate, who was 12 when he allegedly killed his playmate in July 1999, was indicted by a Broward County grand jury for first-degree murder. When he was convicted in March 2001, he became one of the youngest Americans ever sentenced to life in prison. Since the 4th DCA overturned his murder conviction last month, the main question in the public’s mind was whether Tate and his mother would accept a plea deal that could set him free in less than a month. Over the weekend, Tate finally signed the agreement pleading guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for three years in a juvenile facility with credit for time served, followed by one year of house arrest and 10 years’ probation. It was the same deal Broward State Attorney Michael Satz offered him two years ago. When Tate’s appellate lawyer, Richard Rosenbaum, argued his appeal before the 4th DCA last September, he contended that Tate’s competency was clearly questionable because he had rejected Satz’s generous plea offer. Rosenbaum also argued that Tate’s competency was in doubt because he seemed uninterested in the trial proceedings, spending much of the trial drawing pictures. Rosenbaum said Tate’s competency also was suspect because he has an IQ of 90. In her motion for rehearing, however, Rescigno argued that none of Tate’s behavior at trial raised concerns about his comprehension. During the hundreds of hours that psychologists spent interviewing Tate in preparation for trial, no one raised any questions about his competency, she argued. IMPLICATIONS FOR OTHER JUVENILE CASES The 4th DCA ruling in the Tate case could have implications for other juvenile felony cases tried in adult court. Miami lawyer Benedict Kuehne, who helped represent the teenage brothers Alex and Derek King after their 2002 murder convictions, said he would have raised the issue of the boys’ competency on appeal if the judge hadn’t set aside the jury’s verdict. Derek King, 14, and his brother Alex, 13, were convicted of second-degree murder for the killing of their father, who was bludgeoned with a baseball bat. The boys, who also were convicted of arson for burning the house down to cover up the murder, faced life sentences. But shortly after trial, Escambia Circuit Judge Frank Bell threw out their convictions because Escambia County prosecutors had tried both the boys and a family friend, Rick Chavis, for committing the same murder. Kuehne, who along with Miami attorney Jayne Weintraub was hired by comedian Rosie O’Donnell to help with the boys’ appeal, never got to the competency issue. After setting aside the verdict, the parties worked out a plea agreement after Judge Bell ordered them into mediation to avoid a retrial. The King brothers pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and arson. But because of the boys’ young age, the question of their competency would have been debated on appeal, Kuehne said. “It plainly was an underlying issue,” he said. “These children were highly impressionable.” The 4th DCA’s ruling in the Tate case, Kuehne said, lays out easy instructions for handling juveniles who have been transferred to adult court. “Any child about whom there is some uncertainty regarding facility with the criminal justice system is going to be best served by having a competency determination,” Kuehne said. “The court’s ruling sheds new light on a process that has always been used on adults.”

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