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Prosecutor wants Lafave attorney silenced

The State Attorney's Office seeks a gag order against the defender of the teacher accused of a sex crime, calling his remarks inaccurate.

By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
Published November 18, 2005

TAMPA - The Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office asked a judge Thursday to bar Debra Lafave's attorney from talking publicly about her case, saying he is trying to drum up sympathy for his client and has made misleading comments to the media.

Lafave, a 25-year-old former Greco Middle School teacher, is scheduled to go to trial Dec. 5 on charges she had sex with a 14-year-old student. Chock full of salacious details about her alleged relationship with the boy, the case has attained international notoriety. From the National Enquirer to News of the World, Lafave has become the talk of the tabloid world.

Prosecutor Michael Sinacore contends Lafave's attorney, John Fitzgibbons, has made "inappropriate" and "inaccurate" comments about the case that could improperly influence potential jurors. In a motion filed Thursday, Sinacore said Fitzgibbons has mischaracterized the terms of a plea deal the state offered earlier this year. The prosecutor is expected to argue in court today that the extraordinary media attention on Lafave could impede the state's right to a fair trial.

But Fitzgibbons says the spotlight on the case doesn't give prosecutors the right to trample on his client's First Amendment rights. He vowed to mount a vigorous challenge to the prosecution's motion.

"It's absolutely outrageous. Debbie Lafave never asked for all of the publicity in this case, and the U.S. Supreme Court has made it absolutely clear that I have a right to defend my client in a court of law and in the court of public opinion," Fitzgibbons said.

Others have tried and failed before to impose gag orders on defense attorneys in high-profile cases.

In 2000, federal prosecutors asked a judge to bar Tampa attorney Barry Cohen from talking publicly about the case of his clients Steve and Marlene Aisenberg. A federal judge in Tampa shot down the gag motion but warned both sides to limit statements on the case.

Attempts by the state to restrict the speech of a defendant or his attorney have had little success elsewhere in Florida, said Jon Kaney, general counsel for Tallahassee's First Amendment Foundation.

Concerns about the media's influence on a jury are typically raised by the defendant, not the prosecutor. The fact that the roles are reversed in Lafave's case could indicate a problem with the case, he said.

"You have to assume he's concerned about convincing the jury that the defendant is guilty. Whether or not the case is weak or not - it shows that he's worried about it," Kaney said. "When you think about the state gagging an attorney that is defending someone's innocence, it begins to take on a sort of totalitarian overtone, and that really is chilling."

Sinacore has also filed a motion calling for a number of restrictions on television coverage of Lafave's trial.

He is expected to ask Hillsborough Circuit Judge Wayne S. Timmerman to order Court TV to avoid videotaping the teenage victim and his family and to only broadcast audio of their testimony.

In a scathing letter sent to Sinacore's office Wednesday, an attorney for the cable show vowed to oppose the motion. Lawyers for other media outlets are expected to join in opposition as well.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 813 226-3337 or rondeaux@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 18, 2005, 01:27:15]


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