ATLANTA - The judges of a Florida appeals court could see the boy in the black man-child, the recklessness in the kid who loved TV wrestling, the testosterone-fueled stupidity in an otherwise harmless preteen. They didn't see a hardened killer.
So they reversed the conviction of Lionel Tate, who was just 12 years old when he was accused of murder in the death of his 6-year-old playmate, Tiffany Eunick. Although there was no evidence that Lionel meant to kill Tiffany, a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison. The appeals court restored a semblance of common sense to a travesty of justice.
But it hardly solved the larger problem - the impossibly complex conundrum - of black men and crime. It is a contentious and difficult issue, a bramble of stereotypes, prejudice, ignorance, fear and paranoia. It involves the frustrating tendency of the criminal justice system to persecute black men, as well as the depressing fact that black men commit a disproportionate share of the nation's homicides.
Even as black men such as E. Stanley O'Neal, Richard Parsons and Colin L. Powell have risen to the highest ranks of business and diplomacy, America continues to stereotype black men as dangerous predators. It does not matter how well-dressed, well-educated or well-mannered they are; black men have grown accustomed to routine stop-and-frisks by police officers, to being bypassed by cab drivers, to being glared at by white women who find themselves sharing a lonely elevator.
The stereotyping of black men, which harkens back to the earliest days of American slavery, helps explain the harsh treatment of Lionel Tate and the disproportionate number of black men in prison, as well as the increasing numbers of black men released from prison after years spent behind bars for crimes they didn't commit.
But the problem is not simply one of bigotry. The worst-kept secret in black America is that there are many predators among black men. For every Lionel Tate, a young man who thoughtlessly inflicted fatal injuries on a playmate, there is a Michael Lewis, a.k.a. Little B, an out-of-control thug who killed a man at 13.
In 1997, Darrell Woods and his family stopped at a convenience store in a bottomed-out Atlanta neighborhood called the Bluff. Michael Lewis, who was selling drugs nearby, demanded that Mr. Woods turn out his headlights. When Mr. Woods refused, Michael Lewis shot him dead as Mr. Woods' two young sons sat in the back seat.
In 2002, the nation had 14,054 homicides, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report. Of those in which a suspect was identified, black men were likely perpetrators in more than 40 percent. That's a damning statistic for a group that accounts for only about 6 percent of the population.
Black men are also the group most vulnerable to violent crime. In 2002, they accounted for nearly 40 percent of the nation's homicide victims. In other words, black men pose the greatest threat to each other.
Not that you'd know that to listen to the public debate, which is often a contentious argument fueled by white racism and black defensiveness and denial. Many whites are reluctant to admit that justice in America is not color-blind, while blacks are loath to concede the problem of violence in their midst.
A recent controversy over escalating crime in Atlanta's most popular entertainment district, Buckhead Village, bore witness to the racial divide. White callers to talk-radio shows denounced blacks for "ruining" Buckhead, while black politicians and activists dismissed concerns over violent crime as a ruse, a cover for racist whites who wanted to return to an era of segregated nightlife. Few pointed to a salient fact: Of the nine homicides in Buckhead Village since January 2000, all the victims and all the suspects are black.
If the nation is ever to have a system of criminal justice that is actually just, it has to stop confusing the Lionel Tates with the Little B's.
And if black America is to solve its problem of violent crime, it needs to stop pretending the Little B's don't exist.
RIVIERA BEACH -- Activists hoping to halt the criminal prosecution of children as adults now vow to organize a large demonstration and "dream team" of defense lawyers should 16-year-old Lionel Tate be retried for murder.
An appellate court last week ordered a new trial for Tate, who in 2001 became the youngest person in Florida sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
The Broward County State Attorney's Office must decide whether to appeal the ruling, retry the youth or negotiate a deal that would free him.
A group headed by Bishop Thomas Masters, of New Macedonia Baptist Church in Riviera Beach, is pressing for Tate to be freed. Masters on Sunday called for the "largest demonstration Broward has ever seen" should he be retried.
"We'll be there by the hundreds, by the thousands saying, 'Justice now,' " Masters said. "That's not a threat. It's a promise."
A spokesman for the Broward state attorney would not comment Sunday.
Lionel Tate was 12 years old in 1999 when he was charged with first-degree murder in the death of a 6-year-old playmate.
According to court testimony, Tate was imitating wrestling moves at his mother's Pembroke Park home when he fatally injured the girl.
Tate's mother turned down a plea deal in which he would have received three years in prison. His attorneys are seeking the same deal now.
"He isn't old enough to vote, join the military or drink, so why should he be tried as an adult?" Masters said Sunday during a combination church service and news conference. "Regardless of the crime, regardless of how gloomy the situation is, children must be treated like children, rather than the adults they are not."
Richard Rosenbaum, Tate's appellate attorney, said O.J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran, along with a "dream team" of other unnamed high profile-lawyers, will join forces to free Tate -- and try to ban state laws that allow children to be tried as adults. Cochran was first consulted on the case in 2001, shortly after Tate was sentenced to life.
Rosenbaum, who is representing Tate for free, told some 100 people at Masters' church that Tate was in shackles when they first met.
"He couldn't even scratch his nose," Rosenbaum said.
He recalled how Tate played tick-tack-toe with his attorneys during a trial and didn't "have a clue his life was on the line."
He reported that Tate is in the 11th grade now and has made three A's and three B's.
The 4th District Court of Appeal ruled on Tate's case Wednesday, saying his mental capacity should have been evaluated before his trial in Fort Lauderdale.
The judges said Tate could not understand the legal process.
Masters also has been an advocate for Nathaniel Brazill, the Lake Worth teen sentenced to 28 years in prison for shooting to death teacher Barry Grunow in 2000. It was Brazill's case that got Masters involved in helping juveniles facing adult crimes in Florida courts. He helped create an organization, Under Our Wings, to fight that system.
An appeals court has granted Lionel Tate, the youngest killer ever given a life sentence, a new trial.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal released its long-awaited opinion Wednesday morning.
''I feel like somebody took a 200-pound weight off my head,'' said Jim Lewis, Tate's defense attorney who has been criticized for rejecting a plea offer and using a professional wrestling defense for the youngster. "Hopefully, now, he's going to get a break.''
Tate was 12 when he killed his 6-year-old playmate, Tiffany Eunick, in 1999. The appeals court said Tate's competency was not properly evaluated.
''The record reflects that questions regarding Tate's competency were not lurking subtly in the background, but were readily apparent, as his immaturity and developmental delays were very much at the heart of the defense,'' Judge Barry Stone wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel. "It is also alleged that his I.Q. of 90 or 91 means that 75 percent of children his age scored higher, and that he had significant mental delays.''
Earlier this year, Tate's attorney released prison report cards, showing the youth has been getting As and Bs. But his attorney on appeal, Richard Rosenabum, has argued repeatedly that Tate had to be incompetent to reject a three-year probation offer and risk the life sentence he received.
Judges rejected Tate's other appeals arguments, including his assertion that Florida's laws putting youngsters in adult courts are unconstitutional. That issue, coupled with the case of Palm Beach County killer Nathaniel Brazill, helped raise international interest in Tate's case.
Numerous liberal social groups filed briefs with the court on Tate's behalf. His mother was granted an audience with Pope John Paul II earlier this year.
The court rejected Brazill's appeal earlier this year and referred to that decision in rejecting several arguments Tate made in his quest for a new trial. Nathaniel Brazill, who at 13 killed his Lake Worth Middle School teacher, is serving 28 years in prison.