JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – More than 4½ years after Donald Smith was seen walking out of a Walmart with 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle, the girl's mother took the stand Monday morning to confront the man prosecutors say raped her daughter before choking the life out of her and dumping her half-naked body behind a Northside church.
Rayne Perrywinkle, who was called as the state's first witness, glared at Smith as she began answering a prosecutor's question about what happened the night she said she met Smith at a Dollar General in June 2013.
A Dollar General manager, who was working as a clerk the night Perrywinkle met Smith, later testified that Smith had asked to buy adult magazines at the store before noticing Perrywinkle struggling to afford clothes for her children.
Perrywinkle recalled what Smith told her as she walked out the front door.
"If you really want that dress, I will buy it for you," Perrywickle said he told her. "He was giving my 8-year-old too much attention. I should’ve told him no."
Instead, Perrywinkle admitted to loading Cherish and her two other daughters into Smith's van after he promised to spend a $100 Walmart gift card on clothes for the kids. Perrywinkle's answers about why she chose to get into Smith's van with her children were halting and tinged with regret and sorrow.
She said that after shopping for a while with her girls in the Walmart, waiting for the wife Smith said was bringing the gift card, she allowed Cherish to follow Smith, who said he was going to get food. She told the court she believed her daughter would be safe because the McDonald's was just inside the store.
Perrywinkle testified Smith reassured her that he meant them no harm.
"I thought I was just being paranoid," Perrywinkle said. "He looked into my face and told me I was safe."
Store surveillance video showed Smith and Cherish instead walked out the front door about 10:30 p.m.
Perrywinkle's voice cracked as she said she would not have let Cherish leave the store with Smith if she knew that's what he was planning. She appeared emotional as she recalled the moments not long after when she went to the front of the store and realized Cherish and Smith weren't there.
Smith sat stonefaced and occasionally took notes as he listened to Perrywinkle's testimony, and when prosecutors were done, Smith told Judge Mallory Cooper under oath that he did not want his lawyer to cross-examine Perrywinkle.
Cooper made it clear that his attorneys would not get another chance to question Perrywinkle, but Smith said he didn't want to put her through it.
"I don’t want her to have to go through anything that she does not want to," Smith told Cooper.
Randy Reep, an attorney not affiliated with the case, said it was a smart move for him.
"The facts are hugely weighed against him," Reep said. "This is all about the death penalty portion of the case from a mitigation standpoint, and that might be one reason why (he thought it was) a bad idea to cross-examine Rayne Perrywinkle."
A mother's fear becomes an awful reality
Prosecutors said that less than 12 hours after the video showed Smith leaving the store with Cherish, police stopped his van on Interstate 95 near downtown.
Charles Wilkie Sr., a Jacksonville Sheriff's Office K-9 officer who responded to the traffic stop, said as soon as he saw Donald Smith's clothes were soaking wet, he feared the worst.
"I shouted out and said, 'Oh my God, she's in the water,'" Wilkie testified.
Minutes later, Cherish's body was found hidden in a marsh creek behind Highland Church -- the same church where witnesses said they saw a white van that looked just like the one Donald Smith was stopped driving.
An evidence technician then testified that her body was found near a fallen tree, partially covered with grass, vegetation and some asphalt.
Wilkie testified his first reaction was to try to save her, but he could tell immediately that it was too late for that. He also said he vividly recalled the orange dress Cherish was wearing when he found her because his daughter had the same dress.
How the day began
During opening statements, State Attorney Melissa Nelson told the 12 jurors and four alternates that Smith, 61, abducted Cherish from the Walmart, brutally raped her and strangled her.
Nelson said DNA evidence will show that Cherish suffered cruelly at the hands of Smith.
"Cherish did not die quickly or easily. It was a brutal and tortured death," Nelson said.
Defense attorney Julie Schlax began her opening, saying that some of the burden for what happened to Cherish falls on Cherish's mother, who made the decision to go with Smith to Walmart and let her daughter walk off with him when he offered to buy her a cheeseburger.
Schlax indicated her team would be questioning Perrywinkle, but Smith later declined to have them cross-examine her.
The panel of 12 women and four men were told to expect to hear and see explicit evidence in the June 2013 abduction, rape and murder of Cherish.
Smith had been released from prison only three weeks before he was arrested in Cherish's death. He served 438 days on a conviction for trying to access a child by posing as a Florida Department of Children and Families employee.
Over the last 40 years, Smith has been arrested a dozen times, three of them involving sex crimes with minors. He has been on Florida's registry of sexual offenders since it was created in 2007.
If the panel finds Smith guilty, the jurors will be asked to sentence him to death.
News4Jax will not only cover every moment of the trial, we will livestream the proceedings online, with the disclaimer that some graphic testimony and evidence will be presented during the trial.
The trial is expected to last three to four days, with another three to four days for the penalty phase if he is found guilty. It’s uncertain if the penalty phase will start immediately following the verdict is reached.