Lionel Tate, the youngest defendant in the nation sentenced to be locked away for life, was released Monday after serving three years for killing a 6-year-old girl.
Circuit Judge Joel Lazarus ordered Tate freed without bail, a month after an appeals court threw out the boy's 2001 conviction because his mental competency was not evaluated before trial. Tate has since struck a plea bargain that will mean no further time in prison.
Wearing a light blue golf shirt, Tate emerged unshackled from the Broward County Jail surrounded by his mother, attorneys and other supporters.
Tate and his mother first held a five-minute reunion inside the jail before emerging, holding hands and raising them in the air.
"I just want to give God thanks first and foremost," said his mother, Kathleen Grossett-Tate. "Continue to pray for us because we're going to need it. This is a new chapter in our lives, and we're just going to go forward."
Tate, now 16, has to wear an electronic monitoring device until he returns to court for the plea hearing Thursday.
"For now, Lionel wants to go home, he wants to feel his pillow, he wants to sleep in his own bed and his mom cook to make him his favorite meal tonight," said his attorney Richard Rosenbaum.
Supporters have rallied from the Vatican to the United Nations to free Tate since he was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of playmate Tiffany Eunick. Tate was 12 when he punched, kicked and stomped the 48-pound girl to death in 1999. His mother was babysitting the girl. She says she was sleeping upstairs.
Tate claimed he accidentally killed the girl while imitating professional wrestling moves he had seen on television. Autopsy reports showed Tiffany suffered a lacerated liver and at least 35 other injuries.
The case stirred debate over a Florida law that requires children convicted of first-degree murder to get life in prison without parole.
After Tate's conviction was thrown out, prosecutors renewed their offer of a three-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea to second-degree murder _ the same offer Tate's mother had turned down before the trial.
After meeting with a psychologist who will test his mental competence, Tate is to appear at another hearing Thursday, when he is expected to plead guilty to the second-degree murder charge and be formally sentenced.
He will receive credit for three years he served in jail and at a maximum-security juvenile prison for the crime. He has agreed to one year of house arrest, 10 years' probation, counseling and 1,000 hours of community service.
Tiffany's mother, Deweese Eunick-Paul, said she agreed to the plea sentence because Tate was so young at the time of the murder.
"In some cases people are rehabilitated," she said Monday. "If he wants to do better and do something good with his life, I think he should be given that opportunity to do that."
Eunick-Paul also said she hoped Tate would admit he was responsible for the death and stop claiming it was an accident.
"We wanted Lionel to step up and say, "Look, I have done something wrong here. I'm guilty of this, I'm sorry about this,' " she said.
"I do hope that Lionel will express remorse, at a minimum, for what occurred," Gov. Jeb Bush said Monday.
Tate's supporters said the teen will not make the same mistakes again. Tate's 18th birthday is just more than a year away.
"He's going to have to make the right choices and listen to the right people," said his trial attorney, Jim Lewis. "Lionel's got a second chance and hopefully he's going to make it work _ if he's got help."