The Case Against Debra Lafave

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," Dec. 2, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: A young Florida woman is now expected to use an insanity defense in a case involving sexual battery charges, a result of a relationship with a 14-year-old boy. This is not the first such case in recent years. Washington State teacher Mary Kay Letourneau (search) did seven years in prison after being convicted of rape for having sex with a 13-year-old boy. She and that boy, now an adult, now plan to marry.

What is going on here? On the one hand, society seems to be handing out condoms in schools, and on the other, reacting with horror if male students have sex with teachers. For answers we turn to Wendy Murphy, whose law practice specializes in this area. She is a former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor in Massachusetts. She joins us tonight from Boston.

Thank you very much, Wendy, for joining us. Explain to me, first of all, what this charge of battery means in this case? Was there some violence involved in this, alleged to be involved in this case between this young substitute teacher and this 14-year-old boy?

WENDY MURPHY, FMR. SEX CRIMES PROSECUTOR: Well, not in the sense that I think you’re asking the question, Brit. There was no additional violence beyond the act of sexual penetration. But under Florida law, the charges called sexual battery (search), most of us would describe the crime as rape. It simply means penetration or sexual union with another in this case, without consent. The age of consent interestingly enough in Florida is 12, which is very young. Disproportionately young compared to other states.

HUME: If he’s beyond the age of consent at the time this happens, then what’s up here?

MURPHY: Well, Florida also has another really important provision in its sex crime statutes. Which is that if the perpetrator is in a position of authority over the victim, then there can be no consent. So that’s the definition of the crime we’re working with.

HUME: All right. Let me put this question to you that I think is — it’s terribly politically incorrect. But it’s the one I’ve heard from everybody that — at least every male that I’ve heard speaking about this case. Which is, this woman is clearly a pretty young woman. And a lot of people have said to me — and as you can she’s young. She looks like she’s barely a teenager herself, although I guess she’s an adult. They both said, wait a minute, who is the victim here?

You talked about, you know, the elements of rape. On the other hand, it doesn’t appear that there was a lack of consent by this young man that we can understand anyway. So is he really a complainant here? Is he really a victim?

MURPHY: Well, it’s so important to sort of take the gender roles and remember that I think if the reverse were true, that if this were a male teacher of age 23 and the victim was a female age 14, we’d be so clear about how inappropriate this is. And most cases are male on female crime.

HUME: Right. But I understand inappropriate. I think we can all agree that under aged sex between adults and minors is inappropriate. We can make a pretty powerful case that it is immoral. But has a crime really been committed here?

MURPHY: Well, absolutely. Has a crime been committed here, and this is one of the worst crimes imaginable, in part because of what we think is really going on. That this is some kind of, you know, exciting sex game for an adolescent boy.

So many people say hey, when I was 14, boy, I had a crush on my female teacher. And she was cute, too. Wouldn’t have I been the lucky one if I could have had sex with her? But you have to remember what sexual violence is all about. What it means to have this age and power disparity in the context of this act. And it’s unfair to call it a relationship.

She was his teacher. She’s in a position of trust and authority. His parents placed him in her care. And what happens when the sexual act occurs in that relationship is basic, pure unadulterated exploitation. Now, the boy may well have been participating biologically, and I’m trying to be gentle here, in the sense that he was able to participate. And as a male with a female it’s hard to imagine this was not enjoyable or consensual. But the question is was he exploited, thus harmed?

And when you’re 14 and a teacher in a position of authority is engaged in this behavior with you, it’s extremely harmful. But you know what, Brit? Most boys who go through this don’t get the harm until they get old enough to appreciate when they mature into an age where they understand exploitation. And they look back on this kind of situation, they say oh, my goodness. I can’t believe she did that to me.

HUME: So the issue, Wendy is, as you see it, and I guess as other experts in the area see it, is the discrepancy in authority and leverage of that kind between the two figures involved, correct?

MURPHY: And the exploitation for her sexual gratification primarily.

HUME: Correct. Now, I can’t help but think back to the case of Bill Clinton (search), who had a young woman purporting to have an educational experience as an intern in the White House, and participated in some goings on there. There was a charge leveled against the president that brought him to impeachment. But it wasn’t that charge so much as it was the question of lying about it. What’s the difference?

MURPHY: Well, in terms of the nature of the sexual behavior involved, Monica Lewinsky was an adult. She was absolutely capable of making a mature decision and she was not only an adult in some technical sense because she had had a birthday that placed her into adulthood, she was sexually mature. She was capable of understanding what it means to engage in sexual behavior with another adult.

HUME: Got you.

MURPHY: This is a child, a 14-year-old child being exploited. It’s so important to remember how we would feel if the gender roles were reversed, because it’s just as harmful here.

HUME: Thank you very much, Wendy Murphy for clearing that up for us.

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