Statement from State Attorney's office
The State Attorney's Office in Ocala dropped its charges against Debra Lafave on Tuesday. The office issued the following statement:
By Times Staff
Published March 21, 2006
When the charges against Debra Lafave were filed, it was the opinion of all concerned that prison was the only appropriate sentence for her. This opinion was held by this office, the state attorney of the 13th Circuit, the parents of the victim and the victims themselves.As the prosecution of the case continued, the constant media attention began to wear on the victims and their families. The families began to express reservations about exposing the victims to publicly testifying in the matter.
As the first of the two trial dates approached, Court TV indicated they were going to broadcast the trial and would not agree to requests that would assure the victims' names were not made public. This caused great concern to the victims and their parents.
At about the same time, B.B., the secondary victim in the case, had his deposition taken (one of several factual errors in the court's order.) This experience, together with the decision of Court TV, caused the victims to approach the state attorney of the 13th Circuit with a request that a trial be avoided at any cost.
After extensive consultation with the victims, their families and this office, it was decided to make an offer to the defense that would avoid a trial. The only offer that was acceptable to the defense was a sentence that avoided prison for Ms. Lafave. The final offer included a lengthy list of conditions which provided protection for the public against any further criminal behavior by this defendant.
The plea was presented to a circuit judge of the 13th Circuit, along with an explanation of why it was being offered. This judge was aware of the case pending in Marion County and that a similar resolution of that case would be sought. This judge approved the agreement and accepted the plea and imposed the agreed upon sentence.
A hearing was scheduled to present the plea to Judge Stancil. In a meeting in his chambers before the hearing, Assistant State Attorney Stacy Youmans informed the judge of the proposed disposition. She also informed the judge of her meeting with vicitm M.M., and that he had a very difficult time even talking to her and expressed her concern about his ability to testify (a second factual error in the court's order.)
Judge Stancil indicated that he did not see reason to depart from the guidelines, but indicated he would make an announcement in open court. After the meeting in chambers, the judge approached counsel for both sides as we were talking in the hallway and stated that if we had expert testimony to offer in support of our position, that the vicitms' best interests dictated this disposition, that his ruling would likely be different.
The judge did not suggest that testimony from victim/witness advocates or others was necessary. In open court, with a large number of the media present, the judge announced that he would not accept the plea. After the hearing, the judge's decision received much media attention. A few media representatives, none of whom knew anything about the facts of the case, or the risk to the vcitim of proceeding with trial, congratulated the judge for his decision. There were two or three letters to the editor published in the local paper with a similar theme. Judge Stancil has made remarks making it clear that he is aware of this publicity.
Based upon the judge's suggestion, we engaged the services of Dr. Lazoritz, a psychiatrist. Dr. Lazoritz is the associate chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Florida, is board certified in both child psychiatry and forensic psychiatry, and has worked extensively with children who have been subjected to sexual abuse.
While additional experts could have been hired, none would have brought Dr. Lazoritz's unique qualifications to the case. Dr. Lazoritz not only testified befeore the court, but a copy of his report, which he prepared along with a second doctor, was also supplied to the judge. Dr. Lazoritz summarized his finding by stating: "It is our opinion, with a reasonable degree of medical certainty, (M.M.) will suffer adverse psychological effects if a trial were to be held. (M.M.) is ill equipped to deal with the events of his abuse and finds it to be a form of torture to have to talk about it. Even in the best circumstances, there would be considerable trauma if (M.M.) had to be in the spotlight again."
At the hearing, Dr. Lazoritz testified that it would take six to eight years before M.M. would recover from this trauma. After the hearing, where testimony was offered, the court read from a prepared statement. What prompted the judge to have prepared remarks is not evident from any activity in the case. After the hearing the judge indicated that he would hold another hearing to announce his ruling. No hearing was held, but the judge issued a written order.
Inconsistent with his previous statment, the judge dismissed Dr. Lazoritz's testimony, indicated other testimony was required, and rejected the plea agreement. The order indicated that Judge Stancil "does not believe that the witnesses in this case are different from most witnesses in any case."
In that Judge Stancil has not met these witnesses, it is not clear on what this conclusion is based. Crime victims are not all alike. All have their own unique injury and their own unique vulnerabilities. The lawyers and doctors who have met these individual victims have a very different opinion from the court.
The court's order also suggests the courtroom could be closed during the testimony of the vicitms. Even if this were done, as was testified at the hearing before Judge Stancil, that action would not alleviate the concern about protecting the victim's privacy. It is unlikely that a trial could be conducted without the names of the victims being mentioned in open court by some other witness. The court may be willing to risk the well being of the vicitms in this case in order to force it to trial. I am not.
The Florida Constitution and Florida statutes make it clear that vicitms are entitled to protection and to have their wishes given consideration in all criminal cases. The victims have made it clear that they do not want to testify, and this position is both understandable and reasonable.
When weighing the harm to the victims of being victimized once again by a public trial against the possibility of convicting Debra Lafave and having her sentenced to some prison term, in my opinion the harm to the vicitms outweighs all other considerations.