TAMPA — Almost a year ago, a retiring judge joked with Debra Lafave about the demands of her newborn twins, complimented her on completing her community control sentence, then released the ex-teacher from the probation she had promised to serve for having sex with a 14-year-old boy in 2004.
On Wednesday, the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that Circuit Judge Wayne Timmerman's last act of leniency before retirement was "an abuse of judicial power resulting in a gross miscarriage of justice."
The ruling means Lafave — whose platinum blond hair and blue eyes made her name a household word — will have to resume four remaining years of sex-offender probation.
Her attorney, John Fitzgibbons said he may take the case to the Florida Supreme Court.
"This is not over."
The appeal court, he said, formally certified the case as "a question of great public importance," eligible for Supreme Court consideration. A case that started out as a salacious, made-for-TV drama now could impact negotiated plea agreements statewide.
The appeal court wrote that "permitting the circuit court to go behind the terms of the plea agreement would undermine the public trust and confidence in the judicial branch."
From the beginning eight years ago, everything about the Lafave case has been of great public interest, if not importance.
Her clothes, makeup and hair became daily staples of national television. Her attorney's suggestion that locking her up would be like throwing raw meat to the lions made headlines everywhere.
But beyond the notoriety, Lafave faced up to 30 years in prison if found guilty by a jury. Because the teenage victim's family wanted to avoid a trial, the State Attorney's Office offered Lafave a way out.
Instead of prison, it offered to let her plead guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious battery, then serve three years of community control and seven years of sex-offender probation. The terms included no unsupervised contact with children, keeping a curfew between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and mental health counseling. Charges against her in Marion County, for having sex with the same boy there, would be dismissed.
Lafave only had to promise that she would complete the entire sentence.
At the time, Timmerman was mocked by Nancy Grace on CNN for approving the plea deal: "The Hillsborough judge swallowed the deal like it was chocolate pudding," she said. "It tasted great going down."
In 2009, Timmerman allowed Lafave to have unsupervised contact with children after she completed her sex offender therapy.
Then last September, with four years of probation left, Lafave told Timmerman she had completed rigorous community control, worked two jobs, given birth to twin sons and was engaged to be married. She asked him for a break.
Saying he didn't care what Nancy Grace thought, Timmerman ended Lafave's probation, over the vociferous objections of Assistant State Attorney Mike Sinacore.
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On Wednesday, Sinacore said he knew of no other case in which a judge granted early termination of probation when the plea agreement disallowed it.
"If his decision had stood," he said, "it would have caused a great deal of uncertainty in plea negotiations."
The appeal court agreed. "The implications of such an order are extremely prejudicial to the State," it wrote.
Fitzgibbons, Lafave's attorney, said he will meet with her and her family in a few days to discuss a Supreme Court appeal. She still resides in Hillsborough County. She is now 32. Fitzgibbons said the expense and the risk that justices will rule against her may discourage her from appealing.
If the order isn't challenged, Sinacore said Lafave would have to appear soon before a judge in Hillsborough County for instructions on resuming probation.