Nation of Islam security hearings impresses, puzzles

Palm Beach Post/January 31, 2004
By William Cooper Jr.

Fort Lauderdale -- As they entered the fourth floor of the Broward County Courthouse, top members of Lionel Tate's defense team were surprised to see a squadron of black men dressed in sleek suits and bow ties.

"When I saw them sitting in the lobby, I thought they were there for another trial," said Bishop Thomas Masters of New Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Riviera Beach. "I was not expecting anything out of the norm."

The neatly dressed group of roughly 20 men and women are members of the Nation of Islam, appearing on behalf of Tate, the youngest American sentenced to life in prison without parole, as the teen was about to officially end his three-year imprisonment for killing a 6-year-old playmate.

But nobody's saying how they appeared in the hallway leading to courtroom 465, and how they won the trust of Tate and his mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate.

"We're here to respect the wishes of Lionel Tate and his mother," was the only statement the members made during Tate's bond hearing Monday and plea deal Thursday.

Although some Nation of Islam members were seen talking to Grossett-Tate during the two days, it's unclear whether they provided anything more than security.

But it's also unclear who called for that security, which normally is handled at the courthouse by Broward County sheriff's deputies.

Richard Rosenbaum, Tate's appellate attorney, and Masters, who advocated on Tate's behalf at the Vatican and the United Nations, said they were unaware that the religious group had been sought for protection.

Their show of force didn't go unnoticed by Deweese Eunick-Paul, mother of Tiffany Eunick, the first-grader Tate killed. In emotional testimony to the judge Thursday, Eunick-Paul contended that Tate's mother did not disclose what really happened on July 29, 1999, the day Tate beat her daughter to death.

"Kathleen can hide from behind her badge, the lawyers, the ministers, the Nation of Islam, but you cannot hide from the truth," Eunick-Paul said.

Former Tate prosecutor Ken Padowitz, who is in private practice and represents Eunick-Paul, said the Nation of Islam's presence sent the wrong message. He questioned why Grossett-Tate, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, would turn to such a controversial group for protection.

"Grossett-Tate is a sworn law enforcement officer," Padowitz said. "Why would a member of law enforcement that's charged to protect the public choose the Nation of Islam to protect her?"

The Nation of Islam, a black nationalist group founded in 1930, has garnered national publicity in recent weeks for protecting pop icon Michael Jackson during his prosecution on child molestation charges in California.

The group, led by Minister Louis Farrakhan and numbering about 20,000 members, advocates black self-empowerment and a separate African-American state.

Grossett-Tate, who was busy celebrating her son's 17th birthday Friday, would not comment on the matter, said her attorney, Michael Hursey.

Organization 'professional'

In Tate's case, the Nation of Islam's role appeared subdued. Select leaders spoke with the teen's attorneys, offering advice on security, and the best means to move Tate and his mother in order to avoid the intense media horde.

The group's plan at Tate's Monday bond hearing required escorting Grossett-Tate down four flights of stairs instead of using the elevator. Once outside, members created a human wall around Tate and her son and moved quickly to the Broward County Jail, a block from the courthouse.

During the media's attempt to keep up, an NBC cameraman fell to the ground, tripping in front of the moving mass of people. His fall didn't slow the group's momentum.

The group also helped assist with Tate's getaway when leaving the jail. Rosenbaum, Tate's appellate attorney, had planned for his wife to drive Tate and his mother to safety, but Nation of Islam members had a different plan.

While Rosenbaum's wife drove Tate and his mom from the jail, they later met Nation of Islam members in a parking garage, where the two switched vehicles. The media, meanwhile, continued to pursue Rosenbaum's sport utility vehicle.

"They seemed well-organized and professional," Rosenbaum said. "You could see they take their beliefs very seriously."

With its separatist leanings, the Nation of Islam has always been a lightning rod of controversy. Farrakhan has been dogged by critics for making anti-Semitic remarks, but blacks, particularly those in the inner city, have embraced Farrakhan's rhetoric and the group's push for self-sufficiency.

Their focus on diet and discipline is attractive to young black men who often find themselves disenfranchised from mainstream America. This appeal led to one of the group's most successful events, the Million Man March, which drew black men by the thousands from across the country to Washington in 1995.

In March 1994, Farrakhan spoke at the West Palm Beach Auditorium. Farrakhan's appearance was arranged by Maretha Medeus, a high school teacher and community leader from Boynton Beach who is not Muslim.

The Nation of Islam has a West Palm Beach study group and a South Florida headquarters, Muhammad Mosque No. 29 in Miami. Attempts to reach Minister Rasul Muhammad, regional director and head of the Miami mosque, were unsuccessful Friday.

Stayed in background

Monday appeared to be the first time the Nation of Islam publicly appeared on Tate's behalf.

Tate's claim that he was emulating pro wrestlers when he killed Tiffany, and because of his age, 12, the case drew national attention, especially after he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Black organizations from across the country came to his defense. Some of those groups included black militants who wanted to turn the case into a race issue.

"We urged them not to do that," Rosenbaum said. " 'Don't make this a racial thing. This is a kid thing,' " he recalled saying.

By March 2001, the case drew the likes of famed O.J. Simpson defense attorney Johnnie Cochran and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Eventually, the cries of racism and a potential push by black militants to take over the case diminished, Rosenbaum said. Some of those initially involved in the case from a grass-roots level remained. The Nation of Islam had never appeared, or were never asked to appear.

On Thursday, following Tate's plea deal hearing in the Broward courthouse, a news conference took place. The Nation of Islam members stood stoic in the background.

Later on, as the media disappeared and things became less hectic, Rosenbaum was helping Tate process some paperwork for his life as a free man. He looked around for the Nation of Islam.

"But they were gone," he said.

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