One Reason Missed for LaFave's Light Sentence -- The Media
The Times had a great story Thursday detailing the major reasons beauteous Debra Lafave got a lighter sentence than the less pin-up-ready Jaymee Lane Wallace: the positions of the parents.
As we noted, the mother of Lafave's victim wanted to spare her son the public exposure of a high-profile trial, while the parents of Wallace's victim pushed for a jail sentence.
But we didn't explore what may have been one of the biggest factors in the parents' different stances.
Us. The media.
As the recent explosion of media coverage over Lafave's arrest for probation violation attests, the case of a model-pretty teacher who admitted sex with a 14-year-old student remains a media favorite. Back when the case was still in contention, Lafave stories were featured on Web sites in Russia and China, and newspapers in Australia and Canada. In December 2004, the New York Post published a full-page photo of Lafave modeling a bikini beside a motorcycle; that July, the British tabloid newspaper News of the World published the name and school photo of her victim.
I wrote about the media's role in pressuring the mother of LaFave's victim back then. Though her attorney, John Fitzgibbons, wouldn't comment on the record about it then, his strategy of provoking a media frenzy by bringing a glammed-up Lafave to court regularly sent an unmistakeable message: imagine the frenzy if there's an actual trial.
In late 2005, I counted 168 print stories since 2003 on Lafave and about 515 TV news items. Crack Times researcher Angie Holan looked at media coverage in the first six months after Lafave's arrest, versus Wallace's coverage. She found, in media outlets excluding the Times and Tribune, 100-plus stories on Lafave and less than 10 on Wallace.
For Wallace, the effect was likely less pressure on her victim's family to avoid a trial, which made it easier for prosecutors to insist on jail time -- which they did.
Back in my 2005 story, prosecutor Mike Sinecor summed up the effect of the media coverage on the victim in Lafave's case: "Every time a story aired the attention on the victim's family escalated," said Sinacore, who nevertheless gave most mainstream media coverage high marks. "What the victim's family said, was every time this came up the boy would get harassed at school. If you had to sit back and just from a societal point of view, (ask) what impact does the media have by putting such focus on this case when a young boy is going to be affected, that's the balancing act."
Indeed. And now that another, less glamorous woman has received a much tougher sentence for a similar crime, we in the media must ask ourselves, did we help make this happen? (It's a question especially worth asking, given complaints in today's letters to the editor section from readers who think we have covered Lafave's latest arrest too much)
And if so, how do we keep it from happening again?