Jacksonville, FL — A jury has found Donald Smith guilty for the 2013 kidnapping, rape, and murder of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle.
It took just 14 minutes for the jury to deliver the unanimous verdicts. The penalty phase- which will decide if Smith faces a death sentence- begins Tuesday at 9AM.
There were 19 witnesses called by the State over two days, with State Attorney Melissa Nelson on the prosecution team. One of the most emotional moments came right at the beginning, as Cherish's mother explained what happened the night of the abduction, telling the jury she never would have let Cherish go with Smith, if she knew he was planning to take the girl from the Northside Walmart where they were shopping. Some jurors were visibly crying during the day two testimony of Chief Medical Examiner Valerie Rao, as she showed pictures from Cherish's autopsy, and explained that the girl suffered severe sexual trauma and died of asphyxiation because of tremendous pressure applied to her face and neck.
Through the testimony overall, prosecutors painted a clear sequence of the events that led up to Cherish’s kidnapping, the capture of Smith and recovery of Cherish’s body, and then even a covertly recorded conversation between Smith and another inmate.
Ahead of the abduction, Cherish’s mother told jurors how Smith offered to buy clothing for her girls, tricking her in to believing she was safe and that his wife would meet them with the money. It’s when Smith went to the front of that Northside Walmart to purportedly get food for the family, that he instead leaves, with Cherish following. Employees of both the Dollar General where Smith met the family and the Walmart where Cherish was last seen alive verified surveillance footage for the panel, while a formerly married couple described an odd exchange they experienced with Smith in the Walmart parking lot.
It was an alert JSO officer on patrol that first spotted Smith's van the next day, and a K9 officer joined the pursuit, and ultimately helped bring Smith in to custody. Thanks to tips from a mother and daughter pair and another citizen, JSO was able to find where Cherish's remains were left- in an apparent attempt to hide them- in brackish water, under debris and a fallen tree near a church. That same officer used hisd K9 Gator to track to Cherish, then standing guard over her until evidence technicians arrived to meticulously document the scene. It wasn't until a few months later that another citizen tip led investigators to a stroller, store purchases, and Cherish's sandals- all of which had been missing since her disappearance.
The autopsy showed Cherish struggled, according to the Medical Examiner. They were able to recover DNA left on her remains, despite the environment where she was left- and a DNA expert with the FDLE confirmed several of the samples belonged to Smith.
More former and current JSO employees then testified to getting information from a confidential informant about conversations Smith was having through an air vent, with another inmate in an adjacent isolation cell, purportedly talking about the case. The recording devices that investigators put in those vents captured some conversations, including the two talking about young teens they saw on a tour, with Smith saying that's his "target", and making comments about Cherish.
The defense didn’t call any witnesses, and Smith himself declined to testify in his own defense. They were very limited in their cross examination, and also waived their right to present a closing argument.
The penalty phase will begin on Tuesday. Because of Florida's relatively new death penalty sentencing law, the jury must be unanimous in order to impose the death penalty for Smith.