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Trial opens for man accused of killing 2-year-old Lutz girl

TAMPA — The man accused of killing Amy Romance's 2-year-old daughter, Heather, was the single mother's paid babysitter months before he became her live-in boyfriend. He was raised by a child-care provider. He had years of experience minding small children. Romance was pregnant with his baby.

That same man battered Heather so severely one morning in 2006 that he caused her brain and retinas to bleed, a jury was told Tuesday.

That's how the trial of Eric James Tate, 23, is unfolding this week in Hillsborough County Circuit Court — in two portraits.

There's the Eric Tate who was a quiet, seasoned babysitter with whom a mother found a romantic connection. Then there's the Eric Tate who was charged with first-degree felony murder and aggravated child abuse.

His trial before Circuit Judge William Fuente is substantially different than originally advertised by prosecutors. A charge of rape was dropped. So was the possibility of a death sentence.

Back in 2006, a medical examiner's document referred to reports from St. Joseph's Hospital of "vaginal bleeding with recent genital trauma." A report by a Sheriff's Office child protection officer also noted "extensive" bruises and lacerations of the child's genitals.

On Wednesday, two St. Joseph's doctors described massive brain injuries, but made no mention of sexual battery or genital injuries.

Still, testimony in the first-degree murder case was no less horrific.

The mother testified Wednesday she had hired Tate to watch Heather in the spring of 2006 after checking him out thoroughly. He came recommended by a co-worker. Romance observed him babysitting the co-worker's two children for several days. She also watched how he interacted with Heather. She checked out his other job caring for after-school children.

After he began babysitting Heather, Tate dated her mother and eventually moved in with them. He continued babysitting while Romance worked day shifts at a call center. In the summer, they began sharing a home in Lutz with another couple. Romance became pregnant.

On the morning of Aug. 16, Heather crawled into bed with her mother and Tate. Romance left them to go to work.

A little later, the jury was told, a woman sharing the home said she overheard Tate scolding Heather for wetting the bed. She said she heard him say, "That's what you get for peeing on mommy's bed." The woman went off to work.

About three hours later, Romance testified, she got a call from Tate telling her that Heather had fallen off a couch and was unconscious.

Sheriff's deputies who responded to Tate's 911 call found Heather on the couch, barely breathing. Tate told them that Heather had lost her balance while jumping on the couch and hit her head on the floor.

On Wednesday, the doctors from St. Joseph's said the brain injuries they saw were almost certainly not accidental. They said they were consistent with severe beatings.

The injuries included bleeding on the right side of Heather's brain that became the cause of coma and brain death. They also found retinal hemorrhages in both eyes and bruises on both ears. She was disconnected from life support the next day.

Dr. Carl Riggs, a pediatric critical care specialist, said a fall from a one-story window onto concrete would have been more consistent with such injuries than a fall from a couch.

Defense attorney Brian Gonzalez told the jury he would present experts in short-fall injuries to refute the doctors.

The trial continues today. If convicted, Tate could get life in prison.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Trial opens for man accused of killing 2-year-old Lutz girl 06/01/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 11:52pm]
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