JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Donald Smith, the man accused of abducting and killing 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle last month, was indicted Tuesday on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping and capital sexual battery.
In announcing the indictment, State Attorney Angela Corey and Assistant State Attorney Mark Caliel said the cause of Cherish's death was strangulation. They said she was raped before being killed.
Prosecutors said they have decided to pursue the death penalty in this case. Smith will be arraigned July 16.
"We go hard and tough, as hard and tough as we can on these cases where our children are our victims," Corey said. "We still have constitutional boundaries that we have to stay within. We still have to strictly adhere to not only the rules of evidence but the consitutional rights of any defendant. We will do that and still vigorously pursue justice for this child."
"Mr. (Billy) Jarreau and I support the indictment of Donald Smith wholeheartedly and the State Attorney's decision to pursue the death penalty," Gerald Wilkerson, attorney for Cherish's father Jarreau, said in a statement.
Smith, a registered sex offender, was released from jail only 21 days before he was arrested in the kidnapping and killing of Cherish.
Ten hours after the girl was taken from the Walmart on Lem Turner Road while shopping with her mother the night of June 21, Smith was taken into custody after police cornered his white van on Interstate 95 near I-10, police said.
Authorities put out an Amber Alert with details of Smith's van about six hours after police received a 911 call from Cherish's mother saying her daughter was missing.
Earlier in the evening, Smith, 56, befriended Cherish and her mother at a Dollar General store and offered to take them to Walmart and buy her family some clothes, police said.
After spending a couple hours inside the Walmart together, Smith offered to buy hamburgers and walked with Cherish to the McDonald's at the front of the store, police said. Instead of stopping to buy food, Smith walked Cherish outside and the two of them got into his van, police said.
The girl's mother called 911 when she realized Cherish and Smith were missing. It was after midnight when police put out an alert for Smith's van and the state issued an Amber Alert after 5 a.m.
About 9 a.m., an officer working at the scene of a traffic crash on Interstate 95 recognized Smith's van as it drove past her and called it in.
The highway was shut down while other officers with guns drawn pulled Smith over and arrested him. Cherish was not in the van.
About the same time Smith was arrested, a tip about a suspicious van spotted on Broward Road led investigators to search woods near Highlands Baptist Church. Within the hour, police found Cherish's body.
Smith has been a registered sex offender since a 1993 conviction in Duval County for attempted kidnapping and selling obscene materials. He has been arrested several times since then, most recently in 2009 on a charge of child abuse after making obscene phone calls to a 10-year-old girl, making verbal threats, and impersonating a social worker with the Florida Department of Children and Families who claimed to be investigating the girl's family.
Smith pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in that case and was released from jail May 31.
Police said officers had just visited Smith the morning of the abduction at his registered address -- his mother's home near DuPont Middle School in Lakewood -- to ensure he was complying with state law on sex offenders.
"Hug your children and keep them close," Corey said, in between tears, at a news conference announcing the indictment.
Investigators are still asking for the public's help in finding a stroller (pictured above) that Cherish's family had at the Dollar General. Police said the stroller was in Smith's van at the time of the abduction, but wasn't inside when they arrested him.
Prosecutors believe there could be a second crime scene they need to investigate that could present important evidence in prosecuting this case in which Smith's attorney will try to prove his client is mentally incompetent to stand trial or was insane at the time of the crime.
Anyone who has seen a stroller that is out of place or in a location it wasn't previously is asked to not touch it and call police at 904-630-0500.
Judge Mallory Cooper has been assigned to the case, a day after recusing herself from the Michael Dunn case. Judge Suzanne Bass, who was previously assigned to the Smith case, recused herself, creating the opening for Cooper to fill.
Criminal defense attorney Gene Nichols, who's not affiliated with the Smith case, said it does not warrant a plea deal and will go to trial. He said that will happen likely before summer of next year.
"I'm glad they've got enough evidence that they feel confident to do this," said Pastor Steve Dobbs, Cherish's pastor at Paxon Revival Center Church. "When you mess for a child, I think there's a crossover. And I'm all for the death penalty."Richard Harvey, a close family friend of the Perrywinkles, said he, too, supports the death penalty if Smith is found guilty. He calls the allegations of sexual battery and strangulation sickening. He hopes for the swiftest action possible so Cherish's family can have a little closure.
And he said he's working with community leaders now to petition for stronger laws against sex offenders so no one else has to die the way investigators say Cherish did.
"I forgive him because that's the only way I'm going to get into heaven. But I will not forget," Harvey said. "And I'm going to try and work for every other little child, not to let that happen to them again."