Longform

If Looks Could Kill

Page 6 of 7

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.

After being released from Tomoka Prison, Donnie decided to give up hormones. Starting again would be too much emotionally. After the rape, being female made her feel vulnerable. Living as a male, though, was like admitting she was the same species as her attackers. So she exists somewhere in between — in a sort of gender purgatory. "People ask me if I'm a boy or a girl," she says. "And I tell them I'm neither."

During the first days after her release, she quickly realized her family wouldn't return phone calls. "Donnie's mom is very controlled by her husband," Mark explains. "She won't have a relationship with her son until [his stepfather] passes."

Some friends had died of AIDS while she was in prison, and others had labeled her "a murdering fag," Donnie says. Mark had not yet been released. So, alone and broke, she checked into a Christian recovery center in Sanford called Teen Challenge. Soon she landed a job programming computers.

These days, Donnie lives in a two-story khaki-colored house with a red door and a well-groomed front yard in Palm Coast, outside Daytona Beach. She rarely leaves the house and regularly sees a psychologist. The doctor diagnosed her with posttraumatic stress disorder and agoraphobia.

"She's having a hard time trusting people," says neighbor Mary Howard, who alternates between pronouns when describing Donnie. "He comes over and just cries and cries."

Ask Donnie about Mark, and the tears roll. Though he left prison a year and a half ago, the two no longer speak. He fell in love with another man in jail, she says.

Mark is now living in Greenville with his 78-year-old mother. "She's my first priority," he says. "We're trying to avoid drama."

Both Donnie and Mark deny they ever gave a single injection. They claim the silicone was used for Mark's cleaning business, and the notes mentioning body parts referred to foam padding for transgender pageant contestants. Donnie insists Vera was simply seeking advice after leaving a pumping session somewhere else.

Vera Lawrence's family still struggles without her. For years after the crime, her daughter, Tangela Sears, spoke often about her belief that the couple was not punished harshly enough: "This isn't justice. I feel like I've been banged against the wall."

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Natalie O'Neill
Contact: Natalie O'Neill