Jurors, Medical Examiner emotional while reviewing autopsy of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle

Jacksonville, FL — Editor's note: The details of this testimony can be considered graphic and difficult for some readers. This article contains information regarding the autopsy of the victim and manner of her death.


It was testimony that not only caused several jurors to shed tears, but led to the Chief Medical Examiner asking for a brief recess as she appeared to fight back emotion as well.

Doctor Valerie Rao performed the autopsy of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle back in 2013, and today, she walked jurors through photos and details of her findings regarding the child's death. It's all part of the second day of the trial of Donald Smith, the man who's accused of taking the girl from her family at a Northside Walmart, raping her, and leaving her dead in brackish water near a church.

Rao says she actually went out to the scene where Cherish was recovered.

“Because of the nature of the case. It was a child that was abducted, it was something that the entire City of Jacksonville was concerned about,” she says.

When Cherish’s body was brought to the Medical Examiner’s Office, Rao says the conducted a sexual assault kit, where “a lot of evidence” was collected. The next day, the full autopsy was performed. While preparing to bring out photos taken during that autopsy, State Attorney Melissa Nelson questioned- and Rao confirmed- that they limited the amount of photos they would show, to those which would assist Rao’s testimony.

FULL COVERAGE: The trial of Donald Smith

There were many areas of injury uncovered during the testimony, from scrapes and bruises that Rao believes were the result of Cherish being transported to where her body was found, to ant bites that happened after her death. With the exception of the insect activity, Rao says they determined all of the injuries she suffered happened before her death.

The cause of death, Rao determined, was mechanical asphyxia.

“What she sustained was tremendous force on her next, such that she basically, she could not breathe. She suffered swelling of her brain as a result of lack of oxygen to her brain, and as a result of which, she died,” Rao testified.

Rao described autopsy photos shown to the jury which pictured hemorrhaging and busted blood vessels around her neck, as a result of her strangulation. Rao could not determine what exactly was used, but she determined the bruise pattern was wide, and generally consistent with an article of clothing, like a t-shirt. The force used during the strangulation was so strong that Cherish suffered skin abrasions as well.

Rao estimates it would have taken three to five minutes for the girl to die in this manner.

“Here we have two people who are in a struggle. The child is not incapacitated, and she is going to struggle during this entire process,” she said.

Cherish was also raped prior to her death, and Rao says injuries resulting from that were severe.

“Looking at her genital area and her anal area, she had so much trauma, the anatomy was totally distorted by the injury that she sustained both to her vaginal area and her anus,” Rao testified.

Rao says she also examined Smith at the Police Memorial Building, and he had injuries to his penis which related to trauma and were consistent with the timing of Cherish’s death.

There were extensive swabs taken in an effort to match DNA to a suspect, and Nicole Lee, with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Regional Crime Lab in Jacksonville, says many of those samples did- in fact- point to Smith.

Lee says semen was found in Cherish’s mouth, vagina, and rectum, and other DNA was recovered from around her neck. Lee was able to get a full DNA profile of Smith from samples that were sent to the lab.

For the DNA that was collected from Cherish’s neck, Lee says it was a match to Smith. She says it’s a 1 in 35 quintillion match, meaning she’s confident the only other person responsible could be an identical twin, if Smith had one. Smith’s DNA also matched samples from a rectal swab of Cherish. A full profile could not be performed from the vaginal swab, however Smith was not excluded by the results, and Lee testified that- in all- there was still an almost non-existent chance it was anyone other than Smith. DNA other than Cherish’s could not be detected in the oral swab.

Lee says not being able to detect foreign DNA, or not being able to assemble a full profile, can happen for several reasons, including environmental factors like the presence of water where the remains were found.

On cross-examination, the defense confirmed there was no foreign DNA under Cherish’s finger nails.

Today’s testimony was clearly difficult for some of the jurors, with many openly shedding tears as the autopsy photos were put in front of them. Even Rao had to ask the court for a brief recess during her testimony. The defense moved for a mistrial based on Rao’s request, but that was denied by the judge.

WOKV and Action News Jax continue to follow all of the developments from inside of the courtroom. Stay with us as the trial moves forward.

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