Florida lawmakers from both parties will go to the Capitol next week in agreement that some of the first bills they'll pass this session could have saved the life of an 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle.
Cherish's death combined with a newspaper investigation into the state's sexual predator civil commitment program have created a rarely seen unity in a process that's more often known for division and political differences.
And a package of bills that deal with sexual offender laws is ready for a vote as soon as the Senate begins its annual 60-day session on Tuesday. Later that day, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, along with the bills' sponsor, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, other senators and Diena Thompson, mother of 7-year-old Somer Thompaon, who was abducted walking home from school in 2009, will hold a news conference to discuss passage of the bill.
"There's always a benefit in passing new laws on predators that we know are going to re-offend against our children," said Thompson.
Thompson told Channel 4 she started getting support from Bradley after Somer's death.
Bradley issued a statement Friday about the legislative package reading, "Strengthening the laws that protect our citizens from sexual predators is an issue very personal and very raw for the people I represent in northeast Florida. The deaths of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle in Jacksonville this June and 7-year-old Somer Thompson, of Orange Park in 2009 are felt deeply by this community. The legislative package the Senate has prepared is ambitious and introduces a broad range of reforms related to the issue."
Thompson said she will be in Tallahassee on Tuesday as the legislative package is put into effect.
"I'm not sure what all they have planned for me, but I understand I'll be standing up there with Senate President committee, when they pass this," said Thompson.
Thompson told Channel 4 that she applauds changes to the laws, and while she's not sure they would have changed the outcome for her daughter Somer, she is convinced it could have changed things for Cherish.
"But def'y (sic) in poor little Cherish's case. That goes to show that's someone who never should have been out from behind bars," said Thompson.
The House is expected to approve them the following week.
"If the laws we are proposing today would have been the laws a year or two years ago, Cherish Perrywinkle would be alive," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar and the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee chairman.
The main goal of the proposed laws will be to strengthen the Jimmy Ryce Act, which allows for the civil commitment of sexual predators once they finish their prison terms. The law named for a 9-year-old boy who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in Miami-Dade County is designed to keep the most violent sexual predators locked up. But it's become clear since it took effect in 1999 that there are loopholes.
A review team evaluates predators on a psychological basis to determine if they are a still a threat after their sentences. If they believe so, a trial is held and if a jury agrees, the predator is committed to what looks like a prison, but is technically a psychiatric treatment center. People who are committed are reevaluated and can be released if determined that they are no longer a risk - though officials who run the treatment center have said they are never truly "cured."
Cherish and her mother were shopping when a man befriended them and offered to buy them clothing and food, investigators say. Smith said he was taking Cherish to a McDonald's in the Wal-Mart but he instead led her out of the store. Her body was found the next day. She had been strangled. A registered sex offender, Donald Smith, is charged with her murder. Smith was released from jail the month before the death after being caught making obscene phone calls to a 10-year-old girl, making verbal threats and impersonating Florida Department of Children and Families child protective investigator.
Smith has a long history of sex offenses dating to a 1993 conviction for attempted kidnapping and selling obscene material. He had already been reviewed for civil commitment two times previously, but he wasn't eligible for another review after being released just before the Perrywinkle killing. Only offenders serving prison terms can be considered for commitment and Smith was in jail on misdemeanor charges after a plea deal.
"This tragic, horrific case really shined a light on some of those really big gaping holes in the law that couldn't be ignored," said Lauren Book, a sexual abuse survivor who now advocates for tougher laws.
For more than a decade, Book and her father, lobbyist Ron Book, have sought bills to prevent abuse, help victims and punish offenders each legislative session. Book said she's never seen such a thoughtful, cooperative approach by lawmakers to tighten sexual offense laws.
"To have these bills the first day of the legislative session - it's unheard of. I'm at a loss for words," she said.
One of the bills would allow a civil commitment review for any sex offender, regardless of whether they're serving misdemeanors or felonies. If it had been law already, the Duval County state attorney could have recommended Smith for civil commitment. The measures being considered also call for a victim's advocate, police officers and prosecutors to provide information to the Department of Children and Families team that conducts psychological evaluations to determine if offenders should be committed.