OTR Interviews

Transcript: Exclusive Interview With Debra Lafave's Attorney

This is a partial transcript from "On the Record," March 21, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: Teacher Debra Lafave — she gets lucky, very lucky. One Florida county DA dropped the charges against the teacher, and then she was charged with having sex with her 14-year-old student.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DEBRA LAFAVE, HAD SEX WITH 14-YEAR-OLD STUDENT: I would first like to thank my lawyer, John Fitzgibbons, for believing in me and my illness. I appreciate how he fought to show mental illnesses are real and how they could cause good people to do bad things. I also would like to thank my parents, my friends and my fiancé for their unconditional love and endless prayer.

The past two years have been hard on all parties involved. I pray with all my heart that the young man and his family will be able to move on with their lives. Again, I offer my deepest apology. I have been undergoing extensive psychotherapy and believe it has helped me tremendously. I would hope that all media outlets will let us all peacefully move on.

I think that right now we're taking it a day at a time. And his support is unconditional, and I've known him for 20 years now, and he's proved that he loves me unconditionally, and we're just going to take it day by day.

I want the world to see that bipolar is real. If anything, I am tired of the media. I don't think not one time has the media brought up the subject of my bipolar, and I challenge you to read a book or an article on bipolar illness.

Right now, I'm going through a class that's online for journalism. I think that I have — God has given me a great outlet to write, and I would hope that I could reach people through writing.

QUESTION: So after all of this, you're going to be one of us?

LAFAVE: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

LAFAVE: Because you know what? And Shannon being one of them...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.

LAFAVE: ... some of you have a great heart, and I am able to see that through your writings and through your expressions on TV. So yes.

I believe that I — my mental illness had a lot to do with my actions. And for someone — I've gotten — my passion was teaching. That's taken away from me. I've lost family and I've lost friends, and as you can see, my face has been plastered on every Internet address, every news outlet, and that's not easy. It's not easy feeling the guilt and the remorse and having my own family suffer for my actions.

My greatest regret would probably be the fact that I put this young man through this. I mean, the media has totally taken it out of proportion, and he's suffering even more so by the media's actions.

QUESTION: When you say out of proportion, what do you exactly mean by that?

(CROSSTALK)

LAFAVE: No. Absolutely not. I'm talking about — he is a young man, and his privacy has been violated. He has walked outside of the door and been approached by the media. His picture was published on the Internet. That's what I'm talking about.

In my hearts of heart, I definitely know I am a strong Christian woman, and I believe that God has a path for me and this was just a bump in the road. I know me. My family knows me. I know that I'm a good person, despite everything that's been said about me. And people can say what they want to.

I've learned a lot through counseling. Why it happened? I don't know. I mean, that's a lifelong — I mean, I'm going to be in therapy for a long time, hopefully, for the rest of my life, because it has helped me tremendously. I think therapy is one of the greatest things that have — that I have learned from. Day-by-day process, that's all I can tell you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: Prosecutors dropped the charges against Debra Lafave after a judge refused to accept a plea agreement in the case and was getting the case ready for trial.

Earlier today, we talked to Debra Lafave's attorney, John Fitzgibbons.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VAN SUSTEREN: John, if I had talked to you yesterday, would you have said that you expected this to happen today?

JOHN FITZGIBBONS, DEBRA LAFAVE'S ATTORNEY: Well, it's been a wild day. I expected the judge to rule any day, and I was not surprised by the judge's ruling. I was pleased with the prosecution's prompt decision to dismiss the case.

VAN SUSTEREN: Now, the judge didn't want to let the plea to go through, and the plea had been agreed to by you, your client, the prosecutor, apparently, the complaint and the victim and the family, is that right?

FITZGIBBONS: That's correct.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why didn't the judge want this to go through?

FITZGIBBONS: Well, I've given up long ago trying to read a judge's mind, but it seemed very clear in our dealings with the judge, both in chambers and in open court, that the judge was very much inclined to impose the Florida guideline sentence, which in this instance would be about 16 years-plus in prison. Why he wanted to do that, I think it simply was his belief that this case merited a very, very heavy prison sentence for Debbie.

VAN SUSTEREN: Have you ever, in your experience as a defense lawyer, seen a judge basically say no to a plea agreement that had basically everyone's agreement but his or hers?

FITZGIBBONS: No, not like this. I've had judges in the past suggest refinements to plea agreements under those circumstances. But where everybody was united here and on the same page, plus having the expert testimony of the psychiatrist, and also the extraordinary testimony of Mike Sinacore, the state prosecutor in Hillsborough County — I've never seen that before. So this was an extraordinary situation, and very unusual for the court to decline to agree with what the parties had — the agreement they had reached.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did you see the statement issued by the prosecution which was attached to their request to dismiss the case against your client?

FITZGIBBONS: Yes.

VAN SUSTEREN: I mean, I was surprised because one of the things that — I mean, I thought that the prosecutors seemed to be very unhappy with the judge, even accusing the judge of willing to risk the wellbeing of the victims for some — in order to force a trial.

FITZGIBBONS: Well, I don't think there's any doubt that the prosecution gave a very blunt assessment as to why they made the decision they did to dismiss. I thought it was a very well written statement, and I thought it was powerful in terms of their reasoning. In Florida, victims are given many, many rights. Prosecutors are required to pay great attention and give great weight to what victims want. And this prosecutor made that very clear that that's what they were doing.

VAN SUSTEREN: But you know, the way I read it — and I don't know the personalities in here, but just reading the cold words of what the prosecutors said, it's almost like the prosecutors were quite bold and basically whacked the judge for this.

FITZGIBBONS: Well, it seemed to me that they were unhappy with the court, and I think everybody was very frustrated. This was a very sensitive, delicate case. People have not really said much along the lines of our defense, but I thought we had a very significant defense, with six psychiatrists that were going to testify that Debbie was mentally ill, legally mentally ill. And so this was not a rollover for the prosecutors in any sense. And then you factor in the very strong wishes of the victim and the victim's family, and to me, it just seemed like the agreement we had reached was a fair agreement.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, you may be a little bit modest, John, but I've looked at this record, at least from a side, and I think you almost performed some magic here because, you know, to get this case in this posture, where she doesn't have prison, where it gets dismissed in this county, I think is extraordinary, based on the amount of attention that was brought on this case.

FITZGIBBONS: Well, this has been a highly unusual case, certainly, in terms of the national, if not worldwide, publicity. But I think the bottom line there is there were — there's two people in this case that I hope can move forward. One is Debbie, who is ill, is getting treated now and is doing very, very well. And the young man. We wish no ill will toward him. From everything I understand, he's a nice kid, a good kid, a smart kid. And so for everybody's sake, it was time, I felt, to move on.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, as a defense lawyer, I totally agree with you, but the suggestion that she's ill — and look, if I was in your chair, I'd be arguing the same thing. But I remember listening to one of the tapes where I thought she said that she knew what she was doing was wrong, which is sort of, you know, the death knell to an insanity defense, when you know the difference between right and wrong. Is that a correct restatement of the evidence?

FITZGIBBONS: Well, there was a statement to that effect, yes. But on the other hand, one of the criteria or elements of bipolar illness is risky behavior. And sometimes, when you're engaging in risky behavior, you know it's risky, but you cannot control yourself. You cannot control your actions, and I think we would have had a lot of testimony to that effect.

And I think when you really listen to the tapes, particularly the so-called "pinky promise" tape, where Debbie is talking to the young man, she sounded like a 14-year-old girl talking to a 14-year-old boy, and we would have played that tape in stereo numerous times throughout the trial.

VAN SUSTEREN: But when you talk about risky — I mean, everyone out there is thinking, like, she got off because she's an attractive woman and the victim was a young man. Had this been a 23-year-old guy, a coach, for instance, who wanted to play this sort of risky behavior or conduct himself in this risky manner, most people think it would have been a different result. Right or wrong?

FITZGIBBONS: Well, probably. But on the other hand, it would depend on the mental state of the coach or the male individual. In this case, there was just no dispute that Debbie has a serious mental illness that she will be treated for the rest of her life. And sometimes when you are ill, as she is, you are not responsible for your actions. So that was a very unique part of this case. And again, had we gone forward at trial, I think a jury would have had great sympathy for her after learning everything that she has gone through, including seeing a psychiatrist for the last ten years.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VAN SUSTEREN: More of John Fitzgibbons after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: How did Debra Lafave learn a judge would not accept the plea deal she'd agreed to? Here's more of our interview with her attorney, John Fitzgibbons.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VAN SUSTEREN: Did you tell her about what the judge's ruling was, or was she there when it came in? I mean, how did that work out today?

FITZGIBBONS: Well, we got a call a couple minutes before 9 o'clock this morning from the judge's chambers, advising that the order would be faxed to our office at 9 a.m. It came in. It was obviously clear what the judge had done, and so then I called Debbie and we spoke by phone.

VAN SUSTEREN: So I imagine, at that point, everyone's pretty disappointed. This is before you learned that the prosecution then is going to take the step of dismissing the case, is that right?

FITZGIBBONS: Well, that's correct, yes. We were certainly disappointed, again, not surprised, because we were basically anticipating this. But within a half-hour, forty-five minutes, I'd spoken to the chief assistant state attorney, Mr. Ridgway, and he had advised me they were going to dismiss the case. So we knew fairly early this morning in the process of things that the case was going to go away.

VAN SUSTEREN: Was the prosecutor sort of boxed in? Was the victim unwilling to testify?

FITZGIBBONS: Well, I don't think there's any doubt — I don't know the answer to that. I don't know, if the trial had started, if the young man just simply would not show up. But I think where the prosecutor was coming from here is that the mother and the young man were very adamant, as was the aunt of the other young man, that it was time to conclude this case and not put the young men through a trial. And I think the prosecutor properly recognized that fact and respected, as the prosecutor should in Florida, the wishes of the victim not to go forward. That was really the main reason why the prosecution dismissed the case.

VAN SUSTEREN: Wild guess. Do you think the judge was surprised the prosecutor turned around and dismissed it this afternoon?

FITZGIBBONS: Well, I'm not so sure. When we were in chambers the first time in Marion County in December, when the judge in chambers expressed his unhappiness with the agreement, he made it clear to the state that this case could conclude very quickly by the state dismissing the case. So I don't think he was surprised at all.

VAN SUSTEREN: Was the other prosecutor in the first county involved in any of the negotiations or discussion today, or was it simply the prosecutor in Marion County today?

FITZGIBBONS: Well, I don't know if they've talked. I know, in the past, the two state attorneys have talked to each other and the assistants have talked to each other. But I think this decision was ultimately made in Marion County by Marion County, which would be proper because it was their jurisdiction. But Hillsborough County was very much behind it, very supportive, and certainly, evidenced by Michael Sinacore, the assistant state attorney in Hillsborough County testifying up in Marion County two weeks ago at the hearing.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did the publicity in this case — and even the thought of Court TV putting cameras in there, had they put cameras in there — did that make your job harder, easier? What was the impact on this?

FITZGIBBONS: Well, I've said this for a long time, that it's, you know, when there's heavy publicity in a case or a case is high-profile, it makes my job harder as a prosecutor. Many cases such as this would have resolved or would be resolved maybe somewhat simply outside of the glare of publicity. But once you have publicity in a case, then it puts pressure on the prosecutors. It puts pressure on the judge. It affects the jurors who come into a case having read or heard or seen a lot about the case. It just changes entirely the dynamics of the case.

VAN SUSTEREN: Even though the state of Florida, you can do depositions outside of court that can be brought in and played for the jury?

FITZGIBBONS: Well, no, it's not quite that way. We can take a discovery deposition, but it's not like the civil arena. The witness must appear in person in court. There's a few limited exceptions, if — under the so-called unavailability rules — if somebody's dying or they're out of the jurisdiction someplace. But for the most part, it requires the witness to appear in court and be cross-examined by the defense in front of the jury.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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