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Sex with student brings no jail time for Lafave

Amid a media frenzy and at the urging of her victim's family, prosecutors accept a plea deal from former teacher Debra Lafave

By CANDACE RONDEAUX
Published November 23, 2005


TAMPA - With just a week to go before trial, the glare of celebrity had not dimmed. Larry King, Matt Lauer, Greta Van Susteren - they all wanted Debra Lafave, the former Tampa teacher accused of seducing a teenage boy. Even a judge's gag order could not put the blue-eyed blonde and her media magnet lawyer back in the box.

Finally, the boy's family could take no more. They pulled the plug on prosecution, agreeing Tuesday to a plea deal that will keep the former Greco Middle School teacher out of prison.

"I couldn't imagine sitting there and looking at my son and then looking at him surrounded by the whole courtroom as well as looking at Lafave talking about things that shouldn't have happened to him," the mother said. Her name is being withheld to protect her son's identity.

"It would come out and be written about again and again and again in all of the media. At what point would he have had a normal life in high school, much less be tagged with it the rest of his life?"

Nearly 18 months after her case sent the tabloids into a tizzy, Lafave, 25, pleaded guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious battery as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors in Hillsborough and Marion County.

Under the terms of the deal, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Wayne Timmerman sentenced her to three years of house arrest and seven years' probation.

The last-minute move spared Lafave the possibility of as much as 30 years in prison and saved her victim, who was 14 when the sexual encounters occurred, from the crush of a media frenzy.

As part of the agreement, Lafave will also plead guilty to three sex charges in Marion County, including one count of lewd and lascivious exhibition.

Hillsborough prosecutor Mike Sinacore said media attention played a big part in the state's decision to head back to the bargaining table. He reached a deal with Lafave attorney John Fitzgibbons shortly before the two were due back in court to argue over a gag order Timmerman imposed last week.

On Tuesday, the victim was set to answer attorney questions at a formal deposition. But early that morning, Sinacore asked a judge for a meeting in his chambers to discuss a possible resolution. Several tense minutes later, the plea deal was announced.

"The victim's family indicated they wanted this case over with," Sinacore said.

The announcement sent a ripple through the courtroom as reporters hurriedly scribbled in note pads and scrambled for cell phones.

But the room fell silent as Lafave stepped to the podium to face her punishment.

"I want to apologize to the court and to the young man involved and his family for my actions. I accept full responsibility for my actions and I'm very sorry," Lafave said.

Now classified as a sex offender, the former teacher can no longer work with or near children and cannot live within 1,000 feet of a school, church or playground. She will have a 10 p.m. curfew. She must undergo psychological therapy for four years and submit to a polygraph test once a year to verify that she is abiding by the rules.

If she successfully completes her first two years on house arrest, also known as community control, a judge could waive her last year of home confinement.

"It allows the young man involved here to go on with his life, just as Debbie can go on with her life. He does not have to go through depositions and a trial," Fitzgibbons said.

Sinacore said he had pressed for three years' prison time during plea negotiations early this year. Those negotiations foundered in October. For months afterward, the victim's family held fast to the idea that Lafave should do time.

But in the weeks leading up to the high-profile trial, the fortitude of the family seemed to wane. Although the teenager had agreed to detail the relationship on the witness stand, it was unclear how his testimony about his feelings for Lafave might impact a jury, Sinacore said.

"He did not from the get go want to harm Debra Lafave. This was someone that he liked," Sinacore said.

In the end, the boy's mother decided not to gamble on a trial and to save her son the humiliation.

"That's my goal, to keep him whole," the boy's mother said in an interview with WTVT-Ch. 13. "She (Lafave) has agreed on this plea deal. I don't think it's a cakewalk what's been handed to her. She can begin going on with her life. Most importantly he can go on with his."

Details of Lafave's past and the student's experiences with her became clearer Tuesday afternoon after the State Attorney's Office released hundreds of pages of documents that could have been aired at trial. The papers include interviews with Lafave's former husband, Kristian Owen Lafave, 27, as well as a woman she dated in high school and a co-worker.

Some supported Fitzgibbons' claims about her battle with mental illness and the trauma she suffered when she was raped at 13.

Lafave's former East Bay High schoolmate and lover, Casie Diana Martinez, told prosecutors that the teenage Lafave had struggled with her sexuality and self-image.

"Really, that was from her mom pressuring her to a music career and trying to fit that mold of being thin, being a star, you know, fitting that role of being on stage," Martinez said.

Last year, Lafave's attorney said he planned to raise an insanity defense. A psychologist hired by the state concluded Lafave was sane when she had sex with the boy. But several psychiatrists have since evaluated her and several, Fitzgibbons said, determined that trauma she suffered after she was raped at 13 and her subsequent mental illness may have led her to actions.

"If we were at trial, the doctors would be explaining how trauma over the years has affected Debbie. These traumatic events have an effect on her bi-polar illness. It was my feeling that any juror who listened to the testimony of all the difficulties Debbie has gone through would have found it a very sad and compelling story," Fitzgibbons said.

As in the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, the Washington state school teacher who had a baby with a 13-year-old student, Lafave's case has generated much scrutiny. Pundits and reporters across the country have picked through every last detail, from her recent divorce to a judge's decision barring access to police photos of her genitals.

All along her attorney has turned the spotlight to his advantage. He nearly lost that strategic edge last week when Timmerman issued a gag order barring attorneys on both sides from talking publicly about Lafave.

But Fitzgibbons said the temporary ruling would not have stopped the runaway train of attention aimed at the client he once hinted was too pretty for prison.

"If Debbie was not considered attractive by almost every societal standard," he said, "no one would have been paying any attention to this case."

Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 813 226-3337 or rondeaux@sptimes.com

THE PLEA DEAL

Three years' community control - house arrest - followed by seven years' probation. A 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

No living within 1,000 feet of a school, church or playground. No working with or near children.

Four years of psychological therapy and annual polygraph tests.

No contact with the victim until he is 18 and the court approves.

No profiting from her celebrity status.

No pornography - video, Internet or otherwise.

No driving alone without the approval of a probation officer

OTHER CASES

PAMELA ANN SMART: The media teacher at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, N.H., was convicted in March 1991 of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. She was accused of seducing a 15-year-old male student and threatening to leave him unless he killed her husband, which he did with the help of three friends.

MARY KAY LETOURNEAU: She first met Vili Fualaau when he was a student in her second-grade class at Shorewood Elementary School in Burien, Wash. She was his teacher again in the sixth grade, and the relationship became sexual during the summer of 1996, when he was 13. In August 1997, the then-35-year-old pleaded guilty and was convicted of second-degree child rape and sentenced to 71/2 years in prison. She received an early parole in January 1998, but was back in prison by February when she was caught having sex with Fualaau again, violating a court order to stay away from him. She gave birth to their second child in prison. She was released in August 2004. In April 2005, they got married.

PAMELA JOAN ROGERS: The elementary school physical education teacher and coach in Tennessee pleaded guilty to four counts of sexual battery by an authority figure in August after having a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old boy, who was one of her students in Centertown Elementary School in Tennessee. She was sentenced to serve a 270-day term in jail, and 7 years and 3 months of probation during an 8-year suspended sentence, and will have to register as a sex offender.

- Source: Wikipedia