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Wallace and Lafave: Similar cases, different sentences

Several factors may have affected punishments for two ex-teachers.

By COLLEEN JENKINS and ABBIE VANSICKLE, Times Staff Writers
Published December 6, 2007


TAMPA -- One mother wanted the attention to go away.

The other wanted the abuser to pay with prison.

Attorney Joe Bodiford says their influence is the key to why two high-profile Hillsborough teacher-student sex cases ended with one woman locked up Wednesday and the other avoiding jail.

In the most publicized case, former Greco Middle School teacher and model-perfect blond Debra Lafave got three years of house arrest and seven years of probation after pleading guilty to having sex with a 14-year-old boy.

On Wednesday, a judge sentenced Bodiford's client, former Wharton High School teacher and coach Jaymee Wallace, to three years in prison and three years of probation. She had pleaded guilty to having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett handed down Wallace's sentence after hearing from the victim's mother.

"You preyed on my daughter," the mother said to Wallace. "I do forgive you, but, at the same time, I want justice."

So do the wishes of victims and their families really dictate a case's outcome? Or did the fact that Lafave's lawyer argued that she was "too pretty for prison" earn her a pass on hard time, while Wallace's homosexual trysts brought her a harsher fate?

The St. Petersburg Times asked local legal experts to weigh in.

Most agreed that, more and more, judges and prosecutors are considering the opinions of the victim and victim's family before levying punishment.

"Absolutely the victim's mother or the victim's family is going to impact the court," said Roberta Flowers, a former prosecutor who teaches at Stetson University College of Law.

But the prosecutor who handled Wallace's case said the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office also makes an independent sentencing recommendation based on the facts of each case.

In the Wallace case, that meant siding with the victim's parents over the wishes of the victim.

At a hearing in October, the teen asked a judge to spare her teacher time behind bars. Her parents said Wednesday that a probation-only sentence would be "a slap on the wrist."

Prosecutor Kimberly Hindman suggested the three-year prison term and wouldn't budge, Bodiford said.

Wallace refused the offer and took her chances with Padgett, who once equated sentencing with "retribution" in an interview with the Times, but is known to be a fair-minded jurist.

Wallace will likely serve about 21/2 years in prison under the state's 85 percent rule.

Prosecutors initially insisted on the same prison term for Lafave. But in her case, the victim's mother eventually said she would accept house arrest to avoid her son having to endure the media glare of a trial.

Prosecutors and defense attorney John Fitzgibbons ultimately reached a plea agreement that allowed Lafave to avoid incarceration.

On Tuesday, after serving two years of house arrest without incident, Lafave was arrested on a charge that she violated her probation. According to authorities, she had been having intimate conversations with a 17-year-old co-worker at Danny Boys' Restaurant in Sun City Center, in violation of her sentence, which prohibits her from having unsupervised contact with a child under 18.

Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman JoEllyn Rackleff said Tuesday that Lafave told the 17-year-old she knew she could get in trouble by talking to her. Fitzgibbons said he had no knowledge of that account.

That violation means a judge could sentence her to prison after all. Through a receptionist, Fitzgibbons declined to comment Wednesday about whether he believes Lafave will be punished for the violation.

"Given the extreme break that she was given initially, I believe the hammer's about to fall on her," Largo lawyer John Trevena said.

Another major distinction between the two women's sentences: Lafave is a registered sex offender, while Wallace will be tagged as the more serious sex predator. Both women pleaded guilty to the same charge of lewd and lascivious battery, and it was unclear Wednesday why they have different designations.

Trevena said the roles of race and sexuality play into the charging and sentencing of defendants, and likely influenced the tougher outcome for Wallace, a white woman who married a man in the midst of her affair with the black female student.

"We often see minorities and nonheterosexuals treated more harshly by the justice system," he said. "Is that really a surprise to anyone? That's reality."

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, said she has seen different standards of justice when those involved are gay.

"The punishment should fit the crime," she said. "The race, the religion, the sexual orientation of the victim should play no role."

Prosecutor Hindman said none of those factors weighed on her sentencing recommendation for Wallace. Neither did the gender of the defendant or the victim, she said.

"Every case should be given independent analysis to determine what the appropriate punishment is," Hindman said. "It all boils down to an adult having sex with a child."

Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

At a glance: Two women, two teacher-student sex cases, two different outcomes:

Debra Beasley Lafave

 

Jaymee Lane Wallace

23

Age at time of arrest

28

Greco Middle School reading teacher

Occupation

Wharton High School teacher and girls basketball coach

Two counts of lewd and lascivious battery

Charges

Lewd and lascivious battery and unlawful sexual activity with a minor

14-year-old boy

Victim

15-year-old girl

Three years of house arrest, seven years of probation, classified sex offender

Sentence

Three years in prison, three years of sex offender probation, classified sexual predator