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Child murder suspect has long criminal history

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – If you just take a look at Donald Smith's 19-page criminal history report, it's obvious the man accused of killing 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle has a very disturbing past.

In fact, the 56-year-old was first arrested on a sex offense when he was 21 and was just released from jail 21 days before he is accused of abducting and killing the girl.

"This guy is definitely one of those. He looks like he's never stopped," former prosecutor Rick Alexander said. "Anybody in law enforcement looks at this wrap and knows he's trouble. He's someone we want to put away."

Alexander said he was surprised by the long list and how it compares to the amount of time Smith has spent behind bars. In 1992, Smith was convicted of attempted kidnapping for trying to lure two teenage girls into his van. For that case, he spent five and a half years in prison.

IMAGES:  Visual timeline of Donald J. Smith's criminal record
RELATED:  Rules regulating Florida's sex offenders

Smith was recommended for civil commitment for sex offenders, meaning he would not have returned to society until cured. But the case fell through the cracks. As he was about to leave prison in 1999, the state flagged Smith as likely to reoffend and be dangerous in the future. Psychiatrists who evaluated him agreed. Just 1 percent of all sex offenders and predators get such a recommendation.

"In the statute, it says that we're supposed to be looking for that small, extremely dangerous number of predators," said Daniel Monfaldi, administrator of the sexually violent predator program for the Department of Children and Families.

Smith was sent to a civil commitment facility near Tampa.

Keeping a violent sexual predator in confined treatment after their sentence has run out requires the approval of an unanimous jury. Right now there are about 650 people undergoing that treatment.

For some reason, a jury never heard about the state's or psychiatrist's fears.

"He did do some treatment, but the court let him out in 2002," Monfaldi said. "There is no notation. There is just the petition was dismissed."

Smith was arrested again in 2009 for posing as a Department of Children and Families worker to make an obscene phone call to a young child. In that case, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and served just 14 months in jail.

Because there was no felony, Smith didn't meet the criteria to be reevaluated. That's an evaluation that almost certainly would have found Smith a danger to re-offend and would have kept him in prison indefinitely.

Alexander says things like that happen a lot.

"We have so many crimes going on, the system would literally break down if you took every case to trial," he said. "There's just no way in God's green Earth we could try every person charged with a crime. We have to take pleas."

Smith's first sexual violation was a 1977 arrest for lewd and lascivious act in the presence of a minor.  After serving a year in the Duval County jail, he was placed on probation and adjudicated a "mentally disordered sex offender." He was arrested for violating probation in 1981 and served 14 months in from 1982-83.

And in 2003, Smith was convicted of dealing in stolen property and served two and a half years.

For his crimes, Smith is a registered sex offender, different from a sexual predator. It means he had never been convicted of a sexually violent offense. Police say he had been legally living within walking distance of Dupont Middle School since his release from jail three weeks ago.

The state attorney's office released this statement regarding Smith's criminal history: "This is an ongoing investigation, and the defendant's past criminal cases may be relevant to the current murder investigation. It would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this time."

If this case makes you wonder how many sexual offenders or sexual predators live in your neighborhood, News4Jax provides an online database that allows you to search by ZIP code.

Channel 4 crime and safety analyst Ken Jefferson said it's a parent's duty to know where sexual predators are living, and if it's near a school, parents need to have a plan in place.

"Have the school resource officer be outside and visible if you have a walker coming up to school, if you have kids riding bicycles to school, if you have parents drop them off," Jefferson said. "Have that officer readily available to monitor the traffic of these children coming and going to school."

Can sexual offenders be rehabilitated?

Dr. Marcus DeCarvalho has and is treating sex offenders and says that given Donald Smith's long history of sexual violence against children, he never should have been released to the public.

"This is a a mental issue, this is an illness," DeCarvalho said. "This is something most likely, and the numbers show he will do again. You can't rehabilitate someone who suffers from pedophilia and is a sociopath."

DeCarvalho said states like New York put this type of criminal into a facility to evaluate their mental health instead of releasing them.

"Initially, I was like, 'Is this right, is this wrong?'" he said. "But when you start working with more and more people and start seeing how destructive this is and how it destroys lives, families, communities, I think it's necessary."

It's a concern shared by Michael Knox, a private forensic consultant who spent 15 years with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office as a crime scene investigator.

"Given what his history is, I think to just let him out the door and not really monitor him is going to be difficult to explain," Knox said.

He points to classic red flags: the fact he was a registered sex offender, a history of time in mental hospitals, the fact that he drove a van, which Knox says is a common choice for sexual killers and rapists, and even the fact that he lived with his mother.

Knox said there has to be a better way to flag this behavior, namely a bigger database that includes more details of the crimes.

"We have to learn from this," he said. "We cant bring Cherish Perrywinkle back, but we can use this as a learning tool to figure out how to keep it from happening again."

About the Authors:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013 and reports every weekday for The Morning Show.

Storytelling is at the heart of what Alicia loves most about television news and she is thrilled to be a part of the News4Jax team.