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The Lawyer in the center of the... Double Standard


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  • | 6:00 p.m. July 3, 2006
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The Lawyer in the center of the... Double Standard

COVER STORY by Janet Leiser | Senior Editor

While defending Debra Lafave against charges she had sex with a teenage student, John Fitzgibbons uttered two sentences that ignited a maelstrom of media coverage he couldn't have bought for a million dollars.

"To place Debbie into a Florida state women's penitentiary, to place an attractive, young woman in that kind of hellhole is like putting a piece of raw meat in with the lions," Fitzgibbons told reporters. "I'm not sure she would survive."

The phone at Fitzgibbons' seventh-floor law office in the Tampa Theatre building rang nonstop after those words were spoken in July 2005.

For days, columnists, from dailies to tabloids, attacked the lawyer's sensibilities and criticized a societal double standard that goes easy on good-looking young women who have sex with teens.

Fitzgibbons, 55, faced the barrage, as he heard from old college friends for the first time in years.

But the victim's family bowed under the pressure of the intense media coverage. They urged the state prosecutor to accept a deal that kept Lafave out of prison, even though police recorded her talking to the teen and the boy's cousin saw them have sex in the backseat of her sports utility vehicle as he drove it.

The victim, an honor student who's now 16, didn't want to go through the trauma of a highly publicized trial that would have been covered by news agencies from as far away as South America. A London tabloid had previously published the boy's name and seventh-grade photo.

Lafave, who planned to plead insanity due to bipolar disorder, was placed on three years house arrest followed by seven years probation. She's not allowed to sign a book or TV deal for money. She's also not allowed to teach again.

But the major television news organizations are still courting Fitzgibbons, a former federal prosecutor who has won more trials than most lawyers, to get to the former teacher. Fitzgibbons refused to confirm reports that Barbara Walters was in town recently to talk to the lawyer about doing a special on the former Greco Middle School reading teacher.

Iowa to Washington to Tampa

Fitzgibbons grew up in Estherville, Iowa, the "north star" of the Midwestern state, the eldest of eight children born to Francis and Evelyn Fitzgibbons. He attended parochial schools and went to a Catholic college in Wisconsin.

"I've wanted to be a lawyer ever since I could formulate my first thoughts as to what I wanted to do," he says.

One of the first words he recalls learning to say is deposition. His father, a plaintiff's litigator, often took him to court hearings and to depositions at the Mayo Clinic.

"Dad was the best lawyer I've ever watched," Fitzgibbons says. "He was a trial lawyer that tried maybe a thousand jury trials in his life."

In 1972, John Murray Fitzgibbons obtained a law degree from his father's alma mater, the University of Iowa. Two brothers and a sister also later became lawyers.

His father, always his mentor, died in 2004 of Leukemia.

In 1978, Fitzgibbons was a federal prosecutor in Des Moines prosecuting major crimes when he accepted a job in Washington, D.C., as a special prosecutor on a committee to the U.S. House of Representatives that was investigating antitrust issues in the beef industry.

After two years, he joined the public integrity section of the federal justice department. A few years later he moved to Tampa. His parents owned a vacation home in Longboat Key and a younger brother, Tom Fitzgibbons, practiced civil law in Sarasota.

He worked for the area's then chief federal prosecutor, Robert Merkle, known as "Mad Dog" for his aggressive prosecution style. In Florida, as in Iowa, Fitzgibbons developed a reputation for winning.

"It's the best job in the world in many respects, being a federal prosecutor," he says. "But you have the bureaucracy and bosses."

Consumed by the case

And just like in his prosecutor days, as a trial approaches, he's consumed by the case.

Although another lawyer, Kay Klein, and a secretary have worked with him for the past 19 years, he doesn't allow them or others to touch files he prepares for court.

An FBI agent once misplaced a file and Fitzgibbons couldn't find it in the courtroom so the judge granted a recess for him to retrieve it from his office. His folders have been off limits to others since then.

White-collar crime is his specialty, but he also defends people accused of murder or driving under the influence.

Last year, it was a Saturday and he was working on trial preparation in the $11 million tax evasion case against Lynn "L.D." Stewart, one of the original Hooter's founders. Fitzgibbons worked from 9 a.m. into the following morning. He showed up at the Hub, a downtown Tampa bar, for a drinkonly to realize the doors were locked. It was 4 a.m.

"You can work 20 hours straight because you're so focused," he says. "You get into trial preparation so you can virtually picture on the 12th page of a document and on the 16th line, the words."

It worked for Stewart. Fitzgibbons showed in court that Stewart's accountant, Michael Maricle, had stolen more than a million dollars from him. At least half the jurors believed Stewart's defense he'd trusted Maricle to do his taxes. Prosecutors chose not to pursue a new trial.

Clients pay the price

For a defense like that, his clients pay. A lot.

Although Fitzgibbons appears uncomfortable when asked about his success or what he charges clients, he has some tangible proof of how well he's done.

He's one of the eight owners of the Tampa Theatre building and he owns a 5,400-square-foot waterfront Harbour Island home, as well as a 42-foot Searay named "The Acquittal."

Rumors circulated last year that Lafave's parents, Joyce and Larry Beasley, mortgaged their Ruskin home to pay for her defense. Fitzgibbons would only say "her parents have made enormous sacrifices."

If the Lafave case went to trial, Fitzgibbons planned to show she was insane at the time of the sexual encounters with the teen. Her pregnant sister had recently been killed in a car wreck, and Lafave, a newlywed, suffered bipolar disorder, which can cause a person to commit high-risk acts in the manic stage, he says.

Three of the six psychiatrists who examined Lafave agreed she was legally insane when the sex acts occurred, he says. All agreed she has bipolar disorder.

The insanity defense has worked previously for Fitzgibbons.

In Cape Coral, Cleveland Young, the father of rapper Young M.C., was charged with second-degree murder in the 1994 death of his wife, Lucille Young.

"He woke up one morning and stabbed his wife of 30-plus years to death in the bedroom," Fitzgibbons says. "He wrote Prozac across the master bath mirror. We used the insanity defense."

Cleveland Young had been behaving strangely prior to the stabbing, he says. And the couple had never argued prior to her death.

"It didn't make sense," he adds.

The jury found Young guilty of manslaughter, and the judge sentenced him to probation after his two children, including his rapper son, testified on his behalf.

Fitzgibbons doesn't expect to ever again see the national and international publicity the Lafave case attracted. If the case had gone to trial, satellite television trucks were have likely to lined a two-block area.

"This was an unusual case," he says. "I don't think any of us expected it to become as huge as it did. I was aware it had strong local coverage. But I never anticipated it was going to have the national and international attention that it did."

Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober agrees. "The fervor of this case was unique for a lot of reasons," Ober says. "I've been doing this for 30 years. This has to be at the top of the list."

Why did it attract so much attention?

"For one, you have a very attractive woman," Fitzgibbons says. "Number two, there's sex, and number three, there's a young man involved. You have kind of a mix of issues or situations that society for years has had an interest in. I think sex and beauty sells newspapers, magazines and TV shows."

And the story brought society's double standard to the forefront.

"If Debbie had been a man certainly she would have faced a much more serious result," he says. "There is indeed a double standard. I didn't establish the double standard. It has been around since probably the beginning of time."

How does someone taught by Catholic nuns represent people accused of child molestation, murder or other heinous crimes?

"Sometimes good people do bad things," he says.

Like any good lawyer, he has learned to separate his personal views from his professional ones when he represents a defendant. "It's very important to me that everyone has a right to a lawyer," he says. "I've seen cases where people don't have effective assistance of counsel, they get railroaded through the system."

You can bet they weren't a Fitzgibbons client.

HOW FITZGIBBONS WINS

There's no magic way to win trials, says lawyer John Fitzgibbons. But every time he steps into the courtroom for a trial, he hopes that he knows the case better than anyone else, including his client.

"I don't care if you have some of the finest lawyers in the country sitting next to you, if you don't know the facts of the case you're worthless," he says. "You don't have time to have a committee meeting to decide whether to object to evidence."

Fitzgibbons usually sits by himself with his client. Opposite him, on the prosecution's side, there's usually a crowd.

An acquittal isn't the only way to win a case, he says. But Fitzgibbons has had his share.

He won the first driving under the influence case he defended 20 years ago, he says. The arresting police officer testified the defendant admitted to drinking 10 beers, but the jury still ruled for the defendant.

Sigma International, a St. Petersburg seafood company, was convicted of selling tainted shrimp soaked in chlorine and lemon juice to mask the smell. On appeal, the charges against the company owner were dismissed. Fitzgibbons says that was a "huge win."

A hairdresser was accused of murder in the stabbing death of a man who approached him as he left a downtown Tampa bar. Fitzgibbons successfully argued the victim was a gay basher and was killed in self-defense.

In addition to keeping a Cape Coral man convicted of killing his wife out of prison with the insanity defense, Fitzgibbons successfully used it to win an acquittal for a man accused of money laundering in Panama. He said federal agents continued to work with Steven Mills, a Merrill Lynch account executive, even though he suffered bipolar disorder.

Several years ago, he obtained an acquittal for the president of a Connecticut defense contracting firm accused of fraud.

He also obtained an acquittal for Tyji Armstrong, a tight end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Armstrong was accused of aggravated battery in a bar fight. Fitzgibbons successfully argued self-defense.

One of his biggest recent wins was the November mistrial of Lynn "L.D." Stewart, a co-founder of Hooter's, accused of tax evasion of $11 million over two years.

Coming up: The trial of a downtown Tampa Thai restaurant owner accused of running down a robber and killing him and the trial of executives in the WebMD Corp. case in Charleston, S.C. The Tampa division, Medical Manager Corp., is accused of manipulating figures to inflate profits.

 

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