Thursday, August 11, 2005

Sexy Teachers Keep On Coming

TAMPA - Former Greco Middle School teacher Debra Lafave, accused of having sex with a 14-year-old student, turned down a plea deal on Monday that would have included hard time in prison. She wants a jury trial.

The announcement spurred plans by national media, including tabloid TV, to head to town for the Dec. 5 trial start.

``Negotiations have broken off, and now it's going to trial,'' defense attorney John Fitzgibbons said after the hearing. ``It's time to tee it up.''

If convicted, Lafave, 24, could face up to 15 years in prison on each of two charges of lewd and lascivious battery. Fitzgibbons said the prosecution's plea offer involved ``significant prison time.'' He and his client found that unacceptable.

``To place Debbie into a Florida state women's penitentiary, to place an attractive young woman in that kind of hellhole, is like putting a piece of raw meat in with the lions,'' Fitzgibbons said.

Asked to elaborate on the comment, Fitzgibbons declined. Assistant State Attorney Mike Sinacore said his office worked with the victim's family to determine an appropriate plea offer.

Neither side would provide specifics on what the offer included. Sinacore and Fitzgibbons said they had hoped to reach a plea agreement to prevent the victim from having to testify.

Fitzgibbons has said he plans to use an insanity defense at trial.

In court documents, a fellow teacher told investigators that Lafave said she was stressed toward the end of the 2003-04 school year because of the anniversary of her sister's death. Her sister, who was pregnant, died in an April 2001 car accident.

In cases of insanity, Sinacore said, attorneys must prove the defendant had a mental illness at the time of their crime and either did not know what they were doing or did not know what they were doing was wrong.

According to court records, witnesses told investigators that Lafave's relationship with her teenage student grew flirtatious. They kept in contact that summer.

Police say Lafave had sex with the student in her Riverview town house and again in the portable classroom where she taught English.

During a trip to Ocala, the teen's aunt saw the pair and called his mother. The teen told his mother about Lafave, and his mother called police. Lafave was arrested on June 21, 2004, after several phone calls between her and the teen were monitored. She faces similar charges in Ocala.

A Lafave trial, expected to last about two weeks, will attract quite a bit of attention, Sinacore said. National TV shows, including ``Inside Edition,'' ``Court TV News'' and ``Larry King Live,'' have joined local coverage as the case proceeds through the courts.

Sinacore said the coverage will have to be considered when selecting a jury.

``You have to be aware that jurors have been exposed to media accounts,'' he said.

Jim Kelly, a spokesman for ``Inside Edition,'' and Andie Silvers, a publicist for ``Court TV News,'' said interest in the Lafave case is spurred by several similar cases outside Hillsborough County, including that of Mary Kay Letourneau, a schoolteacher from suburban Seattle who served seven years in prison for having sex with a student, whom she later married.

``These teacher-student relationships, there seems to be a spate of them across the country lately,'' Kelly said.

Kelly and Silvers said their programs will request to have cameras in the courtroom, but their coverage of the Lafave trial will depend a lot on what happens day to day.

Neither seemed surprised at the level of media interest in the case.

``I think this is a case that people find very interesting,'' Silvers said. ``A very beautiful woman who put her student in a compromising position is something people find fascinating.''

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