Great Tate Debate
As told to Ed NewtonPublished: August 2, 2007
For two years now, Tailpipe has been hearing rumors about an alleged miscarriage of justice in the arrest of Lionel Tate for the armed robbery of a pizza delivery man in 2005. Tailpipe has heard the rumors and, until now, dismissed them. You remember Tate, that walking train wreck of a youth who made headlines around the world in 1999 when he was 12, killing a 6-year-old girl while demonstrating some wrestling moves on her. That led to his dubious distinction as the youngest person in U.S. history to receive a life sentence.
He evaded hard time with an appeal (in a subsequent plea deal, he got a year's house arrest followed by ten years' probation), but the teenager couldn't seem to stay out of trouble. In September 2004, police took him into custody after finding him away from home at 2 a.m. carrying an eight-inch knife. The result: another five years of probation. Nine months later, Tate was busted for the pizza stickup.
According to Tate's arrest report, Walter Gallardo was delivering pizzas to unit 208 at 3871 SW 52nd Ave. in Pembroke Park on May 23, 2005. There was no answer at the second-floor apartment, and Gallardo turned around to leave down the flight of stairs when he heard someone yell "Hey!" He walked back up and saw unit 208's door ajar. He walked in. Behind the door, Gallardo told BSO detectives, was a black man with a black handkerchief or bandanna covering his mouth and pointing an "old handgun" at the pizza deliverer. Gallardo fled, screaming for help. Later that evening, while sitting in the back seat of a squad car, Gallardo identified Tate.
A bum rap? Yeah, yeah. The perpetrator had a partially covered face, so how could the victim be so sure it was Tate? And a black handkerchief allegedly used in the crime showed traces of DNA from the prime witness against Tate. But the kid has seemed so determined to turn his life into a lethal smashup that it's hard to believe anything good about him. If convicted of the armed robbery and armed burglary charges, the now-20-year-old inmate, who's being held at the Everglades Correctional Institute, could spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Private investigator Joe Carrillo is a tall, energetic, 51-year-old, Miami-based private eye whose sleuthing skills helped the Miami Police Department nab rapist Reynaldo Rapalo in 2004. Carrillo and former FBI agent Bob Whiting have been on Tate's side since his last arrest. Carrillo and Whiting say the Broward Sheriff's Office and Assistant State Attorney Charles Morton conducted an overzealous, sloppy investigation.
"They wanted the headlines," Whiting says, "because when Lionel Tate robs the pizza man, it becomes an international story. The prosecutor and the detectives working this case did not conduct themselves professionally. They took the easy way out."
Maybe so, but what about the evidence? Didn't Tate admit to calling Domino's Pizza to place the order Gallardo was delivering? And didn't the cops retrieve a text message that Tate sent to an associate to ask about robbing someone that same day? ("U still want to bust that lick after school?" Tate allegedly messaged Willie Corouthers, meaning: Did the other youth want to participate in a robbery?)
But Carrillo and Whiting say there's strong evidence now to implicate Corouthers, who lived next door to the building where the holdup took place. Corouthers' account of the robbery (he was standing at the bottom of the stairs, he says, as Gallardo fled) doesn't jibe with the victim's account, they say. And Corouthers' DNA showed up on the handkerchief, they claim. They've also turned up two new defense witnesses: a 12-year-old boy, who initially fingered Tate but then alleged that it was Corouthers who committed the robbery, and a man who says he saw Corouthers in possession of a pair of maroon shorts on the night of the robbery. The shorts were eventually identified as having been worn by the perpetrator.
When Carrillo and Whiting informed Morton, the prosecutor, of the new evidence, he did nothing, Whiting says. "He doesn't want to hear anything that would exonerate Lionel and put the onus on Willie," he says.
In Tailpipe's view, the new evidence doesn't exactly give Tate the slam dunk he needs. Law enforcement officials have responded with icy skepticism. For the record, Morton couldn't be reached for comment, but Broward Sheriff's spokesman Eliott Cohen briskly dismissed the two private eyes' charges. "I'd expect nothing less from two people who are working for the person they are trying to exonerate," Cohen said. "The court record is extensive and pretty clear" that Tate mugged the pizza man.
But the DNA evidence has been thought-provoking enough for Tate's current lawyer, Jim Lewis, to get a postponement of Tate's trial, which had been set for this past April. Judge Joel Lazarus agreed to push back the hearing until September. Maybe then the troubled young man will get past the lurid headlines and receive the fair trial he deserves.