Court Summons Brutal Memory of Killer
Looking across a spellbound courtroom--and into a nightmare she cannot forget--Mary Bell Vincent raised one of her two prosthetic arms Tuesday and pointed at the man who raped and mutilated her nearly 20 years ago in California.
“Do you see your attacker in the courtroom?” Judge Bob Anderson Mitcham asked Vincent.
“Yes,” she said, pointing with a gleaming metal hook that now serves as a hand.
Lawrence Singleton, 70, seemed not to blink. But Vincent testified briefly but dramatically that Singleton abducted her and then hacked off her arms when she was 15 years old.
Three days after finding Singleton guilty of first-degree murder in the stabbing death of Roxanne Hayes, 31, the 12 jurors were hearing testimony in the penalty phase of the trial. They must make a recommendation on whether Singleton should be sentenced to life in prison or die in Florida’s electric chair.
Speaking in a soft voice, Vincent appeared timid and withdrawn as she answered the friendly questions of prosecutor Jay Pruner with responses that were short, unembellished and stark.
What happened in April 1978? Pruner asked.
“I was attacked,” she said. “I was raped and my hands were cut off.”
“He used a hatchet.”
What did he do with you?
“He left me to die.”
Alongside a drainage ditch on a road?
Was the man who did this to you Lawrence Singleton?
The heinousness of Singleton’s attack on Vincent stands as a national benchmark of depravity. After being convicted of seven felonies in the attack, including attempted murder, rape, kidnapping, oral sodomy and mayhem, Singleton was sentenced to 14 years in prison, the maximum then possible under California law. He was released on parole after serving a little more than eight years.
The public outcry over his release forced him to move from community to community, and he served out his parole in a rented trailer on the grounds of San Quentin Prison. The outcry also led California legislators to pass tougher sentencing laws.
Vincent’s face-to-face meeting with Singleton on Tuesday was not the first time she has seen him in a courtroom. She testified for 90 minutes at his March 1979 trial in San Diego, also pointing an artificial limb at him from the witness stand.
Now 34, she was flown to Tampa by the state from her home near Seattle to testify. Prosecutors were prohibited from mentioning Singleton’s 1979 conviction during the course of his trial and could not bring up the subject until the penalty phase.
Vincent’s entrance into the courtroom Tuesday was so filled with portent that the judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys apparently forgot that she had not been sworn in until she had completed her testimony. Only then did Judge Mitcham ask Vincent to raise her right hand, which she did by pushing her right arm upward with the left prosthesis, holding both arms aloft as she affirmed that what she had just related was true.
Now the mother of two young boys, Vincent spent little more than 10 minutes on the stand Tuesday morning. Outside the courthouse, she was asked by reporters if she made eye contact with Singleton.
“I had to when I identified him,” she said.
What did she see? she was asked.
“I blacked it out,” she responded. “I can’t handle stress right now.”
In fact, Vincent’s life has been tough from the start. She was running away from her Las Vegas home and her parents’ divorce in 1978 when Singleton picked her up near Berkeley. He drove her to Modesto, where he raped and mutilated her, then dumped her out of his van and left her in a drainage ditch.
Although she won a $2.5-million judgment against Singleton, she has never collected a cent. She did receive $13,000 from a California victims’ fund, but that money is long gone. After an interview in The Times last year, she said she received “hundreds of $10 and $20 checks,” for which she and her attorney, Mark Edwards of Santa Ana, Calif., expressed thanks.
“I’m still trying to stay alive,” said Vincent, dressed in a tan cardigan sweater, black sweat pants and sneakers. “For the most part, I’m just trying to be a normal person like anyone else, raising my kids.”
Singleton admitted that he killed Hayes, who worked as a prostitute and was the mother of three children. He said that after he drove her to his home in his van, they had sex, ate dinner and then fought when she tried to take more money from his wallet than the $20 agreed upon.
Hayes was stabbed seven times in the face and chest.
“Separated by 20 years and thousands of miles, two women were unrelated except by their tragic meeting with Lawrence Singleton,” said Pruner, urging jurors to recommend a death sentence. “When Mary Vincent got into his van, he chopped off her arms and threw her into a drainage ditch. Twenty years later, with Roxanne Hayes, he did the same thing. But unlike Mary Vincent, she did not survive. Roxanne Hayes, stabbed repeatedly, lingered into unconsciousness and died.”
Defense attorney John Skye described Singleton as an honorably discharged Korean War-era military veteran and onetime merchant seaman “who had lived a fairly productive, decent life for his first 51 years.”
In arguing for Singleton’s life, Skye told jurors: “This trial is not a matter of vengeance for you to clean up California’s mistakes of 20 years ago.
“Killing him would not be justice but would demean us all.”
Although the jury’s recommendation of life or death is not binding, Florida judges almost always abide by a jury’s decision.
Testimony in the sentencing phase is scheduled to continue today.
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story from Miami.