By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Two months later, on July 19, the same inmate nearly killed Donnie. An incident report notes he "entered [Donnie's cell] and punched [her] twice in the face" and then "threatened to cause more bodily harm." During the assault, Donnie says, the attacker and three others sodomized her and tore her breast implants. They cracked her ribs and busted her lip. "They came racing in and just had their way with me for 40 minutes... There was a tremendous amount of blood."
Though Broward County records show battery charges were filed against the attacker and then dropped, prison reports confirm "several other inmates corroborated" the story.
In the months that followed, Donnie went on medication for pain and depression. "They had me doped up like a rhino," she says.
After complaining about her torn breast, she was taken to the infirmary and examined by medical staff. There a nurse numbed her chest and put a wall of paper in front of Donnie's face. "They took out a pair of stainless-steel scissors," she says, blinking away tears. "And they just cut."
Adds Attorney Reres, who documented the effects of the surgery with a camera: "It was as if the nurse took a perverse pleasure in disfiguring her. It was absolutely horrific."
Donnie's female body slowly became more male. "You hear your voice change. Your beard comes back. Your penis starts to function again," she says. "All of those things had been asleep for years."
In April 2003, Reres filed a motion "to allow the defendant to dress as a woman and wear makeup." It was necessary so Donnie would "not appear freakish" in a way that would "prejudice [her] in front of a jury," Reres wrote. Broward County Circuit Court Judge Peter Weinstein granted the request.
Donnie and Mark were tried in front of separate juries a month later. Six witnesses — five of whom were transsexual — claimed the couple had injected them with silicone. One was South Carolinian male-to-female Jeremy Middleton, who testified he fell into a two-month coma after the pair shot him in the buttocks. "I thought [Donnie] was a real nurse," she said. "I thought [she] was legit."
(Adds Mark's attorney, Eric Schwartzreich: "It was a circus, and the prosecution was leading the show.)
But Ronald Wright, the bow-tied, bespectacled Broward County chief medical examiner, then poked holes in the state's case. He testified that silicone pumped the night of Vera's death could not have moved quickly enough to her lungs to leave her dead. "It's the cumulative effect of... months or years of injections," he said.
In his closing statement, Attorney Schwartzreich asked an attentive all-female jury: "Do you know who killed Vera Lawrence? Unfortunately, Vera Lawrence killed Vera Lawrence."
The verdicts shocked everybody. Based on the same set of facts, one jury acquitted Donnie of murder, but the other convicted Mark. Donnie mouthed the words thank you to her attorney before Weinstein sentenced her to five years.
Three years later, the Fourth District Court of Appeal overturned Mark's conviction, ruling prosecution witness and Broward associate medical examiner Dr. Erston Price gave inadequate testimony. On December 7, 2006, Mark agreed to a plea deal and got six years. Corey "Cookie" Williams, the handler, received four years' probation in exchange for her testimony against the couple.
In September 2003, Donnie was transported to Tomoka Correctional Institution, an all-male prison on the outskirts of Daytona Beach with about 1,300 inmates. Guards watched out for her. "I was so well-looked-after," she says. "I wasn't treated like a freaky piece of trash."
Her time there might have been more complex than that. In July 2005, she was caught "attempting to conspire," according to prison disciplinary reports. Investigators found a fellow inmate had sent a $2,015 check to Donnie's sister in exchange for Donnie "providing protection." (She contends the inmate — who was also transsexual — made up the story so she could be moved to another unit.)
When Donnie was released a couple of days before Thanksgiving 2005, she contemplated living as a woman. She was torn. "That girl that I lived as?" she says. "They killed her."
Dog walkers shuffle past the quaint seaside diners along Flagler Beach on a recent blustery afternoon as Donnie sits on a splintery picnic table. At first glance, her face seems to show the lasting effects of cosmetic surgery: plump pink lips and a delicate button nose. Then the midday sun illuminates her jaw, and stubborn bristles become visible.
When Donnie lifts her wide-frame Chanel sunglasses to peer at the ocean, she catches a mustached middle-age tourist in a jean jacket staring with his mouth agape. "This guy's breaking his neck trying to look at me," she mumbles. She stares right back and gives him a defiant wave. "Hi there!" she shouts.
Busted, he quickly turns his head and scampers off.
Donnie pulls her sunglasses back down over her eyes, as if to hide, and lights a Marlboro. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm gonna be this crazy freak forever," she says, her shiny blond hair whipping into a spiral. "But I'm not trying to have a pity party."
She speaks in a tender maternal tone, but her voice is too deep to pass for a woman's. Her shoulders are broad, her legs thick.