JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – More than four years after 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle was abducted, raped and killed, jury selection began in the trial for Donald Smith, the 61-year-old man charged with first-degree murder in her death.
If Smith is convicted of murder, kidnapping and sexual battery, prosecutors are expected to seek the death penalty for him.
Smith, a registered sex offender, was released from jail in May 2013, just 21 days before he was arrested in connection with Cherish's abduction. Her body was found the same morning he was arrested.
The first of 300 potential jurors in the trial were in the courtroom Monday morning to be briefed on the process, which includes them filling out questionnaires. A few dozen will be invited back to be interviewed by attorneys for both sides.
The jury pool is already narrowing. At least four people were excused for work conflicts, and one man said he “would not be a fair juror.”
Smith's defense has added a psychological legal analyst -- Dr. Brooke Butler -- who will help them select potential jurors.
The defense has asked to repeatedly to move the trial in the high-profile case out of Duval County, but Circuit Judge Mallory Cooper said she will only do that if an impartial jury cannot be seated in Jacksonville.
Last week, Cooper decided photos taken by the medical examiner will be shown to the jury.
Prosecutors said the photos will show the jury how Cherish spent the last hours of her life after she was kidnapped and the brutal torture she endured.
Smith’s lawyers had argued that the autopsy pictures are too shocking and will make it difficult for Smith to have a fair trial because of the jury’s emotions.
The medical examiner agreed that the autopsy photos are shocking, but testified that the photos will help the jury understand what Cherish suffered.
The jury will also see surveillance video from 2013 that shows Smith and Cherish leaving a Walmart on Lem Turner Road together.
Once a jury is picked, the trial is expected to last three to four days, with another three to four days for the penalty phase. It’s uncertain if the penalty phase will start immediately. In Duval County, there’s usually a one- to two-week gap.
According to Smith's attorneys, he no longer wants the jury to be sequestered for the entire trial. However, in court, his attorneys made it clear that they are concerned about Smith getting a fair trial.
Area attorney Gene Nichols, who is not affiliated with the case, said he believes Smith's attorneys will have a hard time getting the case moved.
“Unless they can prove something beforehand, those motions will be denied until they get into the middle of a jury trial,” Nichols said.
A mother ready for justice
Cherish’s mother, Rayne Perrywinkle, told News4Jax she never thought it would take this long to get justice for her daughter in court. The trial has been set and delayed six times before.
The Monday morning jury selection is the beginning of the end of a long road for her.
“I’ve been waiting four years and eight months,” Perrywinkle said. “Now, I’m counting the days.”
Perrywinkle, who is expected to testify as a witness, said she won’t be in the courtroom for the jury selection, but will be there for every bit of the trial once it gets underway. It’s something Perrywinkle said she’s been preparing for.
“I’ve already done some training in the courtroom,” Perrywinkle said. “It’s different (than) what you see on television. It’s very intense. I had no clue.”
Perrywinkle’s wait to get justice for her daughter was extended by a prolonged fight over Florida’s death penalty law, which was settled with a change -- now, a unanimous vote of a 12-person jury is required to put someone to death.
“The state, they’re definitely understanding that they have to present a stronger case and convince all of the jurors that this is the type of case that will fall under the death penalty requirement,” Jacksonville-area attorney Rhonda Peoples-Waters said.
Perrywinkle said she wants the death penalty for Smith and believes he will get a unanimous jury vote.
“Of course, there’s a part of me, deep inside, that’s kind of scared he won’t (get the death penalty), because I’ve been waiting four years and eight months for this,” Perrywinkle said. “But I have to believe, in the end, he’s going to get it.”
News4Jax will have a crew inside the courtroom throughout the trial. The proceedings, from opening statements through testimony, closing arguments and the announcement of the verdict, will be streamed live on News4Jax.com.