Child guilty in mock-wrestling deathlived, attended school in Vicksburg

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 28, 2001

[02/28/01] Many in Vicksburg who knew him are hoping for the best for 13-year-old Lionel Tate, a former resident, who stands convicted of beating a 6-year-old playmate to death in Florida.

A sentencing date has not been set.

Lionel’s attorney, Jim Lewis, described the death of Tiffany Eunick, who was 6, as an accident that occurred while the boy, then 12, was imitating professional wrestlers.

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A Florida jury last month found Lionel guilty of first-degree murder, rebuffing the defense as the story attracted national headlines.

Carla Smith was a counselor at Bovina Elementary School, which Lionel attended in the fourth and fifth grades.

“He was not a mean child and he was not a bully,” said Smith, who now works at Beechwood.

Smith said she was heartbroken about the case.

“This is not something I can believe he was capable of because he was not a violent person,” Smith said. “I will never believe that he was trying to hurt her.”

Smith said Lionel split time between his father’s home in Vicksburg and his mother’s home in Florida.

“He attended fourth grade with us and then left for one year and came back for the fifth grade and then he left to live in Florida,” she said.

Smith said she knows Lionel must be held responsible for his actions.

“I don’t want to see him go to jail for the rest of his life,” Smith said. “I think he could benefit from counseling.”

Police reports said Lionel and Tiffany, a neighbor, were playing in the living room of his Florida home in July 1999, when he and Tiffany began to act out wrestling moves.

An autopsy showed Tiffany suffered a fractured skull, lacerated liver, broken rib, internal hemorrhaging and numerous cuts and bruises.

“He really was obsessed with wrestling,” Smith said. “He knew all of their names and he had all the shirts and he always wanted to get on the wrestling Websites.”

Under Florida law, jurors did not have to find that Lionel meant to kill Tiffany, only that his actions were intentional and abusive.

Lewis said after the verdict that he plans to appeal, citing the judge’s refusal to allow testimony on professional wrestling’s impact on children.

Lionel is facing a possible life sentence.