The decision in the Debra LaFave case raises the question: Is there a double standard when it comes to having sex with teens?
Exhibit One: Debra LaFave. The now notorious 25-year-old middle school teacher from Tampa, Fla., had agreed to plead guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious battery for having sex with a 14-year-old male student almost two years ago. It was part of a plea deal her lawyers struck with prosecutors so she could avoid serving time in prison.
This morning a judge rejected the deal. This afternoon the prosecutor threw up his hands and dropped all charges.
Exhibit Two: Dang Van Dinh. Earlier this month, the Orlando, Fla., chemistry teacher was sentenced to five years in prison for having sex with a 15-year-old female student.
Comparisons to cases like Van Dinh's seemed on the mind of Tampa Judge Hale R. Stancil this morning when he rejected the plea deal prosecutors had negotiated with LaFave.
"Accepting the proposed plea agreement would undermine the credibility of this court, and the criminal justice system as a whole, and would erode public confidence in our schools," Stancil wrote in an order released today.
The judge may have thought his actions would result in tougher punishment for LaFave. Instead, the case imploded.
The boy at the center of this case, now 15, has reportedly been overwhelmed by the media frenzy. His mother decided it would be too traumatic for him to testify against his former teacher. That left prosecutors with a much-weakened case and few options.
"The court may be willing to risk the victim's well-being in this case in order to force it to trial; I am not,'' said Chief Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway, when he announced that all charges against LaFave had been dropped.
That's why they offered LaFave the plea deal that would have sentenced her to three years of house arrest followed by seven years of probation. She accepted. But now, even that mild rebuke is gone.
It is almost certainly no coincidence that the woman at the center of this highly scrutinized case is an attractive, 25-year-old blonde. Her exploits with the teen have been fodder for shock jocks, tabloids and late-night TV.
Comedian Jay Leno has joked about the case regularly, usually with a punchline like: "Where were these teachers when I was in school?"
As commentators have repeatedly noted, it is hard to imagine a comedian making similar comments if the case involved a male teacher and a young female student.
And LaFave? She is not completely exonerated. Last November she pleaded guilty in the same case in another county to two counts of lewd and lascivious battery in exchange for serving three years of house arrest followed by seven years of probation.
She is clearly relieved that there will be no additional punishment but also publicly contrite. This afternoon she spoke for the first time since her arrest. She says she is "very remorseful." And, she adds, "I only pray the young man and his family will be able to move on with their lives.''
Meanwhile, former teacher Dang van Dinh has begun serving his five-year sentence.