Jacksonville, FL — Whether or not Donald Smith had trouble controlling his pedophilic impulses, the State of Florida is working to show the murder of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle was a deliberate act not to fulfill those urges, but to cover up his crime.
Expert testimony in the penalty phase of Smith's trial continued Wednesday with a focus on his brain abnormalities and the impact that would have on his behavior. Multiple witnesses have now testified for the defense that apparent traumatic brain injury and abnormalities would have severely impacted Smith's impulse control.
“So, Mr. Smith, he’s stepping on the gas. He has his left hemisphere works fine. But the brakes don’t work well, and therefore, things like anger, aggression, sexuality… in order for us to all live together in harmony, we have to be able to put the brakes on behaviors that aren’t socially appropriate. Mr. Smith has deficits in the parts of his brain that help him to brake or control behavior,” said Dr. Joseph Sesta, who testified as an expert witness in neuropsychology and the Sexually Violent Predator Program in Florida.
FULL COVERAGE: The trial of Donald Smith
Unlike prior witnesses, Sesta met with Smith for more than five hours- and it was as a result of that meeting that the brain scans were actually done on Smith. Sesta says those scans validated his in person assessment.
“Compared to people who are just like him, his brain doesn’t function normally,” he said.
Sesta differed from other witnesses in that he doesn't believe Smith is suffering from CTE. He has diagnosed mild to moderate brain injury, but is unsure of the cause.
Beyond the physiological elements, Sesta says he believes Smith is a “psychopath”, meaning he’s at a high threshold of both committing bad acts and being a bad person, which manifests through personality traits like a lack of empathy, remorse, and compassion.
Other witnesses have testified that Smith was mentally ill, with diagnoses for major depressive disorder, antisocial personality, and more. Sesta says Smith told him during their meeting that he had previously tried to obtain a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
“If you were trying to fake a disorder, this would be your Bible to guide you to what symptoms you should produce,” he said.
He, in fact, discounted what Smith told him during a personality testing portion of their meeting, because of what he believed to be “grossly overdone” faking.
“This is what psychopaths do. They’re manipulative, they’re cunning, they’re going to try to trick you and fool you. So no, I wasn’t surprised this is what Mr. Smith did,” Sesta said.
What makes this case unique to what Sesta has seen before, is that combination of Smith being a pedophile, a psychopath, and suffering the brain impairment. He says the pedophilic urges were "extremely strong", as evidenced by Smith's actions in this case and at least one prior one.
Sesta said Smith acted different than most pedophiles, though, in a key area- he says most pedophiles don’t kill.
"You can't do what Mr. Smith did to Cherish and expect it not to go unnoticed," Sesta said, regarding the autopsy photos he had reviewed.
That’s an area the state seized on.
“It was your opinion that he killed her because he thought that he needed to avoid capture, or he benefitted by not having her alive,” asked Assistant State Attorney Mark Caliel.
“Oh sure, I agree with that. He’s not dumb,” Sesta said.
While the defense has continually argued that Smith had no control over his impulses, leading to the actions of that night, prosecutors have argued the murder was a premeditated and intention act.
“I think that after he had done what he did to her body, that the only thing he could do would be to take her life,” Sesta said.
“So eliminating her as a witness,” Caliel asked.
“Absolutely,” Sesta said.
WOKV and Action News Jax continue to follow these death penalty proceedings, with testimony continuing through the day.