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Trial for man accused of sexually assaulting, killing toddler begins Tuesday

TAMPA — Four years ago, a 2½-year-old girl who loved Cinderella, ice cream and the color yellow, died after a brutal sexual assault by her mother's boyfriend, authorities say.

That man, Eric Tate, 23, goes on trial today. He could get life.

On Aug. 16, 2006, Amy Romance left her Lutz home for work, leaving her daughter, Heather, with Tate.

The night before, Heather had a bad dream and climbed into bed with the couple, court records say. When Romance, then 20, left around 8 a.m., Heather and Tate hadn't gotten up.

About 11 a.m., Tate called Romance, saying Heather had fallen after jumping on the couch and was unconscious. Romance rushed home to find her daughter struggling to breathe, with her eyes rolled back to one side.

At St. Joseph's Hospital, doctors saw bruises all over the girl's body. An exam showed that she had been sexually assaulted.

Doctors told her family the girl would not survive off life support. She was taken off the machines the next day.

Investigators searched the home and found Heather's bloody panties in Tate's bed and a bloody napkin in a bathroom wastebasket.

They also confiscated the bedsheets and a napkin found in Tate's front pocket.

Tate told detectives he noticed blood when he changed Heather's clothes that morning and asked her whether anyone had molested her, court files say. Then, Tate said, he went outside to fix his bicycle, with Heather nearby in a stroller.

Later that morning, Tate said, he put on the DVD Shark Tale for Heather and sat with her on the couch. The little girl started jumping up and down, then slipped and fell onto the carpeted floor, he said. That's when she went unconscious.

Authorities didn't buy it.

Tate was led out of the hospital in handcuffs, charged with capital sexual battery. When Heather died the next day, Tate's charges were upgraded to first-degree felony murder and aggravated child abuse.

He has been in Hillsborough County Jail since his arrest.

Prosecutors initially announced they would seek the death penalty, but they've since withdrawn that notice, said State Attorney's Office spokesman Mark Cox.

Jury selection, before Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente, begins this morning.

Reach Kim Wilmath at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Trial for man accused of sexually assaulting, killing toddler begins Tuesday 05/30/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 30, 2011 10:56pm]
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