Little Man Tate

Florida’s young murderer and the insanity of our competency laws.

How “competent” can any child be?

Lionel Tate, the Florida teen who was sentenced to life in prison at 14 for brutally murdering a 6-year-old playmate when he was 12, will likely be going home this month. His mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate, has agreed to a plea deal that would give him credit for the three years he’s already served in a juvenile facility, impose a year of house arrest, 10 years’ probation, and some mandatory counseling and community service in exchange for his plea to second-degree murder. The bargain is identical to an agreement the boy and his mother rejected before his 2001 trial—after which he was sentenced to life without parole. That sentence was reversed last month by a Florida appeals court, which held that the trial judge had erred in refusing to test Tate’s mental competency to stand trial.

Tate—allegedly the youngest recipient of a life sentence in U.S. history—has become something of a poster boy for reforming a criminal justice system increasingly warped by the myth of the juvenile “superpredator.” He has met with the pope and collected champions at the U.N. Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International. His appeal was supposed to herald the beginning of the end of states prosecuting juveniles as adults. The discussion around the Tate case has largely addressed the issue of prosecutorial bloodthirstiness and the decision to try him as an adult in criminal court, a decision that forced some tearful members of his jury to impose a mandatory life sentence. While all that may be true, it isn’t the real point of the Lionel Tate story. The Florida appeals court didn’t rule on the evils of trying children as adults or on the harshness of Tate’s original sentence. The court highlighted a simpler and subtler problem: There is something fundamentally wrong with our assumptions about a child’s competency to stand trial.

The standard for legal competency to stand trial is well known: In a 1975 case, Drope v. Missouri, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “a person whose mental condition is such that he lacks the capacity to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to consult with counsel, and to assist in preparing his defense may not be subjected to a trial.” It is, in short, unconstitutionalto try someone who’s unable to appreciate what’s happening at trial and to help his lawyer during the proceedings. Which ought to mean, in short, that it’s unconstitutional to try children who have no clue as to what is going on.

Lionel Tate, whose IQ was tested at 90 at the time of trial and whose “social maturity” was evaluated as that of a 6-year-old, spent much of his time in the courtroom drawing pictures at counsel table. His attorney noted that he didn’t seem to be concerned with the proceedings at all. He followed (terrible) advice from his mother and his attorney to reject the proffered plea deal. Nevertheless, Tate’s lawyer failed to request a competency exam until after the trial ended. The question for the court of appeals, then, was whether the judge should have ordered that full mental competency exam regardless. The court’s answer was yes.

While the court went out of its way to point out that “competency hearings are not, per se, mandated simply because a child is tried as an adult,” it felt that in light of Tate’s age, his unfamiliarity with the legal system, and the complexity of the case against him, the judge should not have taken for granted that he was competent. Moreover, said the court, it was wrong for the trial judge to assume that Tate, with the mental age of an 8- or 9-year-old, could possibly understand the strategic and constitutional decisions necessary to help his attorney defend against a first-degree murder charge. Indeed, his lawyer’s defense strategy—that WWF wrestlers made Tate do it—sounded as if it was cooked up by an 8-year-old in the first place.

All of the court’s sensitivity to the mental and emotional limitations of childhood thus begs the real question: Can any child ever understand what is happening at trial, and could any teenager possibly understand the nuances and strategies involved in a murder defense? In its opinion, the Florida court laid out a broad checklist of the mental skills necessary to meaningfully stand trial. The lower court needed to “assess Tate’s appreciation of the charges, the range and nature of possible penalties, determine whether he understood the adversary nature of the legal process, his capacity to assist his attorney in planning his defense, his capacity to realistically challenge prosecution witnesses, his ability to manifest appropriate courtroom behavior, his capacity to testify relevantly, and his motivation to help himself in the legal process.” It’s not clear that any teenager could meet that standard of mental sophistication. It’s not even certain that I could.

What goes unspoken in the Florida court’s opinion is a truth that’s been known to social scientists for a long time: The binary “competent/incompetent” test of one’s ability to stand trial makes no sense as applied to children. Of course a 14-year-old with the intelligence of a 9-year-old can understand the charges against him, but only as well as a 14-year-old with the intelligence of a 9-year-old can understand anything, including Shakespeare and the nuances of neuropsychiatry. Of course a 14-year-old can assist in his own defense, but not as well as he’d be able to if he were 16, and a 16-year-old quite obviously can’t assist his lawyer as well as he could were he 21. The whole point of adolescence is that you understand some things pretty well, but not with the sophistication of an adult, and that a year or two makes a vast cognitive difference.

All this has been exhaustively and empirically documented by researchers such as Dr. Thomas Grisso, Dr. Richard Schwartz, and Prof. Richard Bonnie. These scholars and their colleagues have consistently found that children under the age of 14 are simply not cognitively competent to “stand trial,” if competence is defined in the legal sense laid out above, and that a significant number of children under 15 are as impaired as severely retarded adults when it comes to legal decision-making. Still, in virtually every state children are now waived into adult courts without any assessment of whether they are fit to be tried there.

There are two easy solutions: The first is to make a mental competency hearing a prerequisite for any child under the age of 15 who’s being tried as an adult in criminal court. What possible objection could there be to determining whether a child is capable of understanding what is at stake or if he thinks he’s on Judge Judy? The second is a return to the juvenile court system, which was designed to address a truth we seem to have forgotten: that children are fundamentally different from adults, and that even when they commit the most heinous of adult crimes, they cannot be said to have had a meaningful trial if the most they could do there was color.