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High court upholds killer's death sentence

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001


TAMPA -- It was the most poignant moment of Lawrence Singleton's 1997 murder trial.

Mary Vincent, whom Singleton had raped in California in 1978 before hacking off her arms, was in court at the request of prosecutors seeking to persuade a jury to sentence Singleton to death.

Sitting in the witness stand in a cardigan sweater, Vincent was asked to identify the man who had cut her arms off two decades before. She raised the silver-hooked prostheses that replaced the arms and pointed at Singleton.

"He used a hatchet," she whispered. "He left me to die."

The moment was so powerful, Singleton's lawyers argued on appeal, it unduly prejudiced the jury and should be grounds for overturning his death sentence.

But the Florida Supreme Court disagreed. The state's high court on Thursday upheld the conviction and death sentence of Singleton, now 73, for stabbing Roxanne Hayes, a 31-year-old prostitute whom Singleton picked up on E Hillsborough Avenue on Feb. 19, 1997.

The Supreme Court rejected all the numerous claims Singleton's lawyers made in arguing that his conviction and sentence should be overturned.

Singleton's lawyers argued that Circuit Judge Bob Anderson Mitcham should have excused three jurors who had heard about Singleton's prior crime, and should not have used biblical references when sentencing Singleton to die.

They also argued that Singleton was denied the presumption of innocence because jurors saw him in prison clothes during a videotaped confession.

Singleton first gained nationwide attention in 1978 when he picked up Vincent, then a 15-year-old California hitchhiker, raped her, cut off her arms with a hatchet, and left her to die in a roadside ditch.

Singleton was sentenced to 14 years in prison, but served only eight. His early release caused such a public outcry that he spent the last 10 months of his parole in a mobile home on the grounds of San Quentin for his own safety. He moved to his hometown of Tampa in 1988.

Vincent traveled to Tampa 10 years later to testify against Singleton after a jury convicted him of murder. During the sentencing phase, when prosecutors are allowed to tell a jury about a defendant's past crimes, the justices wrote, prosecutors were not required to cover Vincent's arm for the jury.

The facts alone of Singleton's past crime did not fully describe what Singleton did, the court found. But hearing from Vincent and seeing her prosthetic arm helped the jury understand exactly what Singleton had done to her.

- David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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