Jacksonville, FL — Closing in on five years after 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle was kidnapped, raped, and murdered, the man accused of the crime is now on trial.
And State Attorney Melissa Nelson immediately started painting a grim and emotional picture of what she says the jury will see and hear in the coming days, in their case against Donald Smith.
“Separated from her mother, her little sisters, from all she knew as safe in this world, she [Perrywinkle] spent the last petrifying hours of her life with him [Smith],” Nelson says.
FULL COVERAGE: The trial of Donald Smith
In her opening statement, Nelson walked through a general timeline of the evening that Cherish was taken from her mother and sisters at a Northside Walmart. It started with Cherish’s mother, Rayne Perrywinkle, taking the girls to a Family Dollar and Dollar General to do some shopping, mainly for clothing for Cherish to wear as she flew across the country to spend time with her father the next day. It was at the Dollar General that Smith first approached Perrywinkle, telling her he had a $150 gift card for Walmart that he didn’t need, and he would like to use it to buy things for the family.
“To Rayne Perrywinkle, that might as well have been $5,000. $150 for Rayne Perrywinkle would mean that she could buy dresses for all three of her little girls, not just Cherish,” Nelson says.
Smith told Rayne that his wife had the gift card and would meet them at the Walmart, according to Nelson. Rayne accepted a ride to the store, and loaded the children and a stroller in to head over.
“In a terrible, irresponsible, and forever irreversible mistake, Rayne Perrywinkle agreed to that lie. Rayne believed this man. She believed his offer of a helping hand,” she says.
Nelson says Smith relied on Rayne’s “naivety”, in order to play out his “scam” and “trap”. At the Walmart, Rayne shopped for the girls, and at a point Smith went to get food for them at the McDonald’s at the front of the store. Cherish followed him, but they did not stop at the McDonald’s- instead, they walked out.
“He didn’t represent any danger to them. He had earned that little girl’s innocent trust,” Nelson says.
When Rayne realized Cherish was gone, Nelson says she started to panic.
“Every mother’s darkest nightmare became Rayne Perrywinkle’s reality. She would never see her daughter Cherish alive again,” Nelson says.
Nelson says the State won’t be able to answer for the jury when and where exactly Cherish was killed, what objects were used, and how long the torture lasted, but she believes the case is airtight in every other way.
Smith was caught after an officer working a traffic accident spotted his van and started a pursuit. When he was caught, he was “sopping wet”, according to Nelson. They soon tied Smith’s van to a tip that was called in by a mother and daughter who had seen it, and Cherish’s body was found in a marshy area at that scene.
“The orange sundress she was wearing- watermelons, grapes, bananas- it was an orange spot in the brackish water,” Nelson says.
She says the Medical Examiner will testify to “myriad injuries” suffered by Cherish, including that she was strangled, forcefully raped and sodomized, and suffered blunt force trauma to the back of her head, among other things.
“Cherish did not die quickly, and she did not die easily. In fact, hers was a brutal and tortured death,” Nelson says.
Nelson told jurors that she expects they will be “changed” by the end of this trial, and that the evidence and testimony will be often difficult to hear. It was that emotional tone that the defense immediately seized on in their opening.
“You have just head an emotionally charged opening statement designed to anger you. What we are asking you to do as Americans in this country is demand the State of Florida live up to the burden of proof,” says attorney Julie Schlax.
Schlax implored the jury to listen carefully to all of the questions they present.
“We will help you test the evidence that the State brings forward,” she says.
She also raised some questions about the actions of Rayne that night, including leaving the store with a man she had initially believed to be “creepy”, and doing so without any clear idea how she would get back from the Walmart. Schlax also says there were 39 minutes between when Cherish followed Smith to what Rayne thought would be the front of the store, and when she ultimately called 911.
To close her brief opening, Schlax thanked the jury for “critically analyzing” everything that would be presented.
“We trust that you will make a legal decision, not a decision based on emotion, not a decision based on revenge or retribution,” she says.
If convicted, Smith could face the death penalty. 12 jurors and four alternates were seated on Friday, and witness testimony has now started as well.
WOKV and our partner Action News Jax will have continuing coverage through the trial.