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Lawyers don't want trial in sex case

Both sides in the case of a teacher accused of sex with a student say a plea deal would protect the boy's privacy.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published March 23, 2005


TAMPA - Camera crews manned every entrance to the courthouse Tuesday morning to capture the arrival of Debra Lafave, the middle school teacher accused of having a sexual affair with a 14-year-old student.

It was only a pretrial hearing. But it was a glimpse of what is likely to come during the trial, given the international attention already focused on Lafave's good looks and the case's salacious details.

Faced with the prospect of such a media circus, her lawyer and the state prosecutor agreed Tuesday that it might be best for all parties involved - especially the teenage boy - to avoid a trial altogether.

"If this case can be resolved without a trial and we could respect the boy's privacy, that could be a good thing," said John Fitzgibbons, Lafave's attorney.

Fitzgibbons and prosecutor Mike Sinacore told Hillsborough Circuit Judge Wayne Timmerman that they will use the extra months until the trial, originally scheduled for April, to review psychological evaluations of Lafave and enter into plea negotiations.

"We haven't even begun discussing what to offer," Sinacore said after the hearing. "We need to understand the explanation for why she did this. Then we can decide what we think the proper punishment is."

Fitzgibbons later told reporters that it is "too early in the process" to speculate about whether he would be open to a plea deal that includes prison time for Lafave.

He is pursuing an insanity defense for his client, who pleaded not guilty to four felony counts of lewd and lascivious battery and one count of lewd and lascivious exhibition. Each count carries a maximum 15-year prison term.

Lafave is accused of having sex on four occasions in June with a teenage boy who had just graduated from Greco Middle School in Temple Terrace, where she taught reading. The alleged encounters occurred in Hillsborough and Marion counties, where the teen was visiting a cousin, according to police.

Radio hosts, Internet sites and tabloids have made light of Lafave's case. But Fitzgibbons said there is nothing funny about the prospect of a future in prison.

"She faces years in prison and the label of sexual predator," Fitzgibbons told reporters. "It's not a water cooler, laughing-type conversation anymore. This is serious."

Fitzgibbons had a psychologist evaluate Lafave, and the state is reviewing the results of that evaluation, Sinacore said.

The state has not yet done its own evaluation of Lafave's mental state. Until then, it's hard to say how successful plea negotiations will be, Sinacore told Timmerman.

"Both sides have an interest in trying to resolve this case," he said. But "we haven't been able to have meaningful negotiations because we're still waiting to hear the explanation for the alleged behavior."

Fitzgibbons said his expert "has concluded that Debbie has some serious emotional issues," but he would not go into details.

"Once the issues become known, I think that will explain a lot of what happened here," he said. Fitzgibbons said he has yet to question the teenage boy under oath, "out of respect for his privacy."

"If this case can be resolved without a trial, there's no point in putting him through a deposition or any of that," he said.

As Fitzgibbons spoke in the lobby of the George C. Edgecomb courthouse building, Lafave stood next to him. Dressed in a powder-blue striped pantsuit and wearing a crucifix around her neck, she said nothing until a reporter asked her if she wanted to talk.

Lafave smiled politely and replied: "I have no comment at this time."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3373 or svansickler@sptimes.com