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Debra Lafave finds her plea deal in jeopardy

Convicted sex offender Debra Lafave back in court as her plea deal for having sex with a 14 year old student is in jeopardy. MSNBC TV's Dan Abrams talks with NBC's Kerry Sanders, former prosecutor Susan Filan and defense attorney Jonna Spilbor.

Debra Lafave, a teacher who admitted having sex with a 14-year-old student had entered a plea that she thought was going to ensure her she got no time behind bars.  However, she’s back in court because the judge isn’t sure he’s going to accept that deal now.

In return for pleading guilty, she was sentenced to three years house arrest, seven years probation.  For the next three years, she'll have a 10:00 p.m. curfew, has to stay at least 1,000 feet from schools, day care centers, any other places kids congregate, forbidden from having any contact with the victim, lost her teaching certificate.  She'll also have to register as a sex offender. 

NBC’s Kerry Sanders, criminal defense attorney Jonna Spilbor and MSNBC analyst and former Connecticut prosecutor, Susan Filan joined ‘The Abram’s Report’ to discuss why the deal might fall apart.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

DAN ABRAMS, HOST, ‘THE ABRAMS REPORT’:  Well Kerry, it initially looked like this was a done deal with one judge, but now it seems they're in another judge's courtroom and it's not so certain. 

KERRY SANDERS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, it's rather complicated, but what we have here is two jurisdictions.  You have Tampa, which is Hillsborough County and you have here in Ocala, which is Marion County.  Now the first plea agreement when in the Hillsborough County court system, it's been agreed to, it's a done deal there.  Now you have Marion County, where the judge is raising the question, with the exact same plea deal, wait a second, I'm not sure this serves the interest of the people of Florida. 

She, he believes, should stand trial and if convicted, he's raised the question whether she should indeed go to prison for what she allegedly has done here.  Why in two different court systems or two different jurisdictions?  The same victim, but there are allegedly multiple liaisons between the 25-year-old teacher and the 14-year-old student.  The contact in Tampa in Hillsborough County went to that court system.  But there were also repeated visits here to Marion County, where it's alleged she had multiple sexual engagements with this 14-year-old boy and that's why it's now in this court system. 

Now, the prosecution and the defense have reached a plea agreement and come in and said, we think this is the best thing.  Not necessarily for Debra Lafave, the 25-year-old teacher, but for the 14-year-old victim.  Psychologists testified saying that he has already experienced some psychological damage and to put him on the stand could further present problems for him down the road.  So the judge listened to that, said he thought it was interesting, but he also said it was a 14-year-old boy when this happened back in June of 2004.  He's a little bit older, and the judge went on to say, nobody likes to testify in any sort of criminal case. 


SANDERS:  You have criminal cases where police officers come out, they don't like to testify, and so he raised the question of basically saying, no go on this plea deal.  We're going forward to a court case. 

ABRAMS:  Kerry, here's what the victim's mother had to say following the November plea deal. 


“SALLY”, VICTIM'S MOTHER:  What we agreed upon is a fair punishment, and I believe that she is taking responsibility for her actions now, and I pray that she gets the help that she needs so that she can move on with her life as well. 


ABRAMS:  So you've got the family supporting this deal where she gets no time, as you pointed out, in an effort to avoid the boy having to testify.  Didn't they know that there was this potential problem with this other court when they entered into this deal? 

SANDERS:  Well, they knew it potentially could happen, but actually it's quite rare for a judge to turn down a plea deal.  Plea deals, as you know, are really what greases the system in many ways.  If there were no plea deals, you know they'd have 24-hour court here and the courthouse would be about 24 stories tall. 

The prosecution in this case did suggest that this is not special treatment.  In fact, they said in the last year, there have been 150 sexual offender cases, both men and women charged and they said in those 150 cases, 60 percent of those cases were actually plead out and gave no jail time, so they say this is not a special treatment and there's been a lot of question.  Is she getting special treatment because she's a woman, because she's pretty because et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. 

ABRAMS:  Kerry, real quick, when are we expecting a ruling from the judge? 

SANDERS:  The judge indicated that he'd be back in about seven to 10 days and he'll announce at that point. 

ABRAMS:  Jonna, are you surprised that this second judge is saying maybe no to the deal? 

SPILBOR:   Very surprised.  I'm shocked that he's saying maybe no to the deal and I don't know why the cases out of that courthouse weren't dismissed as part of the original plea deal.

ABRAMS:  Well that's right.  That's the way I should have phrased the question to Kerry.  Go ahead, I'm sorry. 

SPILBOR:   Oh, no, and that's my point.  Judges encourage plea deals all the time and as your reporter stated, 60 or 65 percent of similar cases have plead out.  That's probably closer to 95 where I come from, so why this judge is not just going to bang his gavel and sanction it is beyond me. 

ABRAMS:  Susan, why wouldn't they?  I mean isn't the way they ordinarily do it is they say all right, we want to keep this in one court so we can just have one judge sign off on the plea deal, let's make sure the prosecutors who have agreed to this in the neighboring county, dismiss the charges so there's only one judge.

FILAN:  Not necessarily.  When you've got different jurisdictional issues, transfer can only be by the consent of the presiding judge in the other jurisdiction.  Let's say this judge said I'm not sending that case to that other courthouse, because I know they're going to dismiss it and I'm the independent constitutional officer here that's got to dispense justice and I think this stinks to high heaven. 

I'm not surprised that he threw it out at all.  Because if he the ultimate arbiter of justice in this case doesn't think it's fair, doesn't think it's right, it's where the buck has to stop.  And justice isn't a number's game.  We don't just rubber stamp deals because we're too busy and it's too hard and it's too much.

We have to do the right thing in every single case.  Ordinarily when a victim wants a deal, the prosecution wants a deal and the defense wants a deal, ordinarily it goes through, but if the judge can't live with it, thinks it's wrong, that judge is actually doing the right thing. 

ABRAMS:  Well I don't know if he's doing the right thing.  He's doing what he thinks is the right thing.

FILAN:  That's exactly right.

ABRAMS:  ... even if it's not what the prosecutor or the defense and the victim want, I get concerned...

FILAN:  But that's the judge's job...

ABRAMS:  I understand.

FILAN:  The judge says I got to do what I think is right. 

ABRAMS:  Yes, well.  I mean you would think that part of their job isn't about happiness, but it's about you know making sure if this kid doesn't want to testify, what are they going to do?  This kid is going to refuse to testify and then they're going to drop the charges and then nothing is going to happen.

FILAN:  Well it doesn't sound like this kid is going to refuse to testify.  It doesn't sound like that's what's happening.  People are saying it's probably not going to be good for him.  He's not going to like it.  He's not going to want to.  And the judge is saying nobody likes to testify, criminal cases aren't fun.  This is a prosecution.  Now hopefully he's not going to have to force the prosecutor's hand to have to drop the charge. 

Watch the 'Abrams Report' for more analysis and interviews on the top legal stories each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.