TAMPA — Debra Lafave, a former Greco Middle School teacher who made national headlines for having sex with a 14-year-old male student in 2004, has won her appeal to end her probation early.
In a decision handed down on Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court overturned an appellate court ruling from last year that reinstated Lafave's sex offender probation. Without taking up the question of whether Lafave deserved to remain on probation, the justices concluded that the 2nd District Court of Appeal lacked jurisdiction to review the case, and reversed its order.
Lafave, 34, will remain on probation until her case can be heard by a Hillsborough trial judge, according to Mark Cox, a spokesman for the State Attorney's Office.
"Obviously we're disappointed, but we respect the decision of the court and we'll move forward," Cox said.
Notorious for her platinum blonde hair, wide blue eyes, and her attorney's suggestion that putting her in prison would be like throwing meat to the lions, Lafave became a source of public fascination. She faced up to 30 years in prison, but because her teenage victim's family wanted to avoid a trial, prosecutors offered her a plea deal. In exchange for pleading guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious battery, she received three years of community control and seven years of sex-offender probation.
Lafave promised that she would complete the entire sentence.
Compared to another Hillsborough school teacher, Ethel Anderson, who was sentenced to 38 years in prison for performing oral sex on a 12-year-old boy, Lafave's sentence was lenient. But she and her then-attorney, John Fitzgibbons, were not content to stop there.
In 2011, weeks after she gave birth to premature twin boys, Lafave was back in court seeking early release from probation. She had four years left on her sentence. But her attorney argued she had completed her required community service and sex offender classes, and she had worked two jobs to pay off her $13,000 in court fees.
On the cusp of retirement, Circuit Judge Wayne Timmerman appeared to regard Lafave as a fellow beleaguered parent. He joked with her about the demands of newborn twins, and remarked that he was a parent of three himself. He gave Lafave another break, releasing her from probation over the protests of the victim's family and prosecutors.
The state appealed, and in 2013, the 2nd District Court of Appeals issued a sharply worded ruling calling Timmerman's decision "an abuse of judicial power resulting in gross miscarriage of justice." After a year of freedom, Lafave was put back on probation.
Fitzgibbons vowed he would take the case to the Supreme Court, which he did, though he ultimately withdrew as Lafave's counsel and was replaced by a public defender.
In their ruling, the Supreme Court justices determined that regardless of the merit of Timmerman's decision, he had the power to dissolve the sentencing agreement and his order was final. Prosecutors couldn't appeal.
"Although we recognize the perceived inequality that the Second District sought to remedy, the district court lacked jurisdiction," wrote Justice Peggy Quince.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Lafave, who was divorced from husband Owen Lafave amid the sex scandal, lives in Ruskin and uses her maiden name, Debra Jean Beasley.
Pending a trial judge's approval, which is all but guaranteed, Lafave will not have to complete the final year of her probation. She will no longer have to keep a curfew between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., log her driving history, or have travel restrictions. She is allowed unsupervised contact with anyone under 18, but remains barred from contacting the victim.
Still, as a registered sex offender, with major restrictions on where she can live and work, the harshest part of her sentence remains intact.
"The intrusion of the state into her life while on supervision is now over, but it continues with her obligation to register with the sheriff's office twice a year and if she misses it, it's a felony," said Clearwater criminal defense attorney Denis deVlaming. "So they're going to be on her back for years and years to come."