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Legal dream team comes to 14-year-old's aid

OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — The "miracle team" forming around Lionel Tate has to decide whether to ask for clemency or seek to overturn his first-degree murder conviction, attorney Johnnie Cochran said Saturday.

The famed lawyer met with Tate for the first time Saturday at the Okeechobee Juvenile Offenders Center, where the 14-year-old is serving a life sentence for killing 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick in 1999.

"I don't think this is a first-degree murder case where somebody should get life in prison," said Cochran, standing next to Tate's mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate, outside the center. "This young man didn't get up on the morning of this incident and plan to kill his friend."

Cochran said Tate recognized him immediately.

"He was able to identify some of my clients," said Cochran, who recently represented rapper Sean "Puffy" Combs and became a household name defending O.J. Simpson in 1995.

Several members of Simpson's "dream team" of lawyers are reuniting on the Tate case, including Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, co-founders of the Innocence Project, which was created to review guilty verdicts through DNA testing. Others helping Tate include Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree and Richard Rosenbaum, who is heading the appeal effort.

Grossett-Tate was pleased to have the noted lawyers working on her son's case.

"I feel blessed. That's the only word I can think of to describe it," she said. "O.J. had the dream team. I have the miracle team."

Tate's conviction of felony first-degree murder ignited a national debate on how to handle juvenile offenders. His mandatory punishment prompted even the prosecuting attorney, Ken Padowitz, to support a reduced sentence.

But complicated legal questions remain. Grossett-Tate still insists her son was innocent and that Eunick's death was an accidental result of rough play. The judge and jury rejected that defense theory.

It's unclear whether Tate would have to admit to the crime in order to seek clemency. Cochran said Tate may only have to acknowledge his current legal standing. If an admission of guilt is required, then the legal team has to decide whether Tate will be better off appealing his conviction on some other grounds. "Those are the alternatives we have to consider," Cochran said.

Cochran and Rosenbaum repeatedly expressed sympathy for Eunick and her family, acknowledging her as the victim in this case and expressing an interest in meeting the girl's mother. But they also said justice would not be served if Tate was incarcerated for the rest of his life.

Cochran also denied that there are racial overtones to the case, noting that Eunick was also black. "It's not about his race; it's about his age," Cochran said.

The lawyers plan to discuss the case in meetings Sunday, Cochran said.