4 things beyond a verdict we learned in Donald Smith trial
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Most people in Jacksonville likely decided years ago what 12 men and women announced in a Duval County courtroom Wednesday: Donald Smith is guilty of kidnapping, sexual battery and first-degree murder in the death of Cherish Perrywinkle.
But those who suffered through two days of sometimes brutal testimony and evidence this week, as well as those watching online coverage, learned several things about the 61-year-old defendant, his crimes and this city.
Here are a few things that stood out to the News4Jax team.
1. Slow justice. Quick verdict.
- Donald Smith was arrested the day after the abduction. Within hours, police had surveillance video of Smith walking off with Cherish that night, witnesses who saw them together and, a few months later, DNA evidence matching him to the crime. But about that time, Florida's death penalty was declared unconstitutional and it took two attempts over a couple of years for the Legislature to pass a law that survived a Supreme Court challenge. That was the primary reason it took 4½ years to bring this case to trial.
- Because of the massive coverage of Cherish's death, Smith's defense team expressed doubt a fair jury could be seated in Jacksonville. They wanted the trial moved out of town, but Circuit Judge Mallory Cooper said she would only agree to that if they could not find impartial jurors in Duval County. It took a pool of 300 to find them, with many dismissed because they admitted to already making up their minds about Smith. But prosecutors and defense attorneys managed to agree on 16 people (a jury and four alternates) who not only said they could judge him on the facts presented in the courtroom but could sentence him to death, if the state could prove that was the appropriate punishment.
- The trial proceeded very quickly, partly because Smith said he did not want Cherish's mother, Rayne Perrywinkle, cross-examined. The defense also rested without calling any witnesses and waived a closing argument. It only took the jury 12 minutes to find Smith guilty on all counts.
2. No normal person could be immune to the ugly reality of Smith's crimes.
- As the jury was seated, the lawyers and judge warned the testimony and evidence would be "emotional and gut-wrenching." Not only were laypeople brought to tears by what they heard and saw, veteran medical examiner, Dr. Valarie Rao, who has overseen autopsies of hundreds of murder victims, choked up while describing the injuries on Cherish's body and how she died. She asked for a five-minute break to compose herself.
- Now retired Jacksonville K-9 Officer Charles Wilkie Sr., one of dozens of officers responding to tips that Smith's van was seen pulling away from a Northside church minutes before it was stopped driving on Interstate 95, let his dog, Gator, track Smith's trail. Wilkie testified they found the girl's abused body partially hidden near a creek. His first instinct was to save her, but he quickly realized it was too late.
"All I could do is just stand by with her and protect her, preserve the evidence, so that one day, whoever did this to her would be held accountable,” Wilkie told the jury.
3. Like many sex offenders, Smith's behavior may be motivated by a desire to achieve power and dominance over people.
- Smith, whose first arrest for a sex crime was 40 years ago and who has been on Florida's sexual offender registry as long as it has existed, had little hope of getting away with Cherish's rape and murder. Yet he appeared to relish being the center of attention in the courtroom. He seemingly shocked his own lawyers when he announced in court he didn't want Rayne Perrywinkle cross-examined. He couldn't keep himself from smiling during an exchange with Judge Cooper about his decision not to testify at the trial. As court adjourned Wednesday, he asked his lawyer if he could turn around and pose for a photographer in the courtroom.
4. People noticed Smith's odd behavior, but he could not be stopped
- Thousands of people who never met Cherish were touched by her short life and tragic death. There was plenty of victim-shaming of Rayne Perrywinkle for allowing her family to go with Smith to Walmart, then letting him walk off with her 8-year-old daughter to get a cheeseburger at the front of the store. Her naiveté as a young, poor, single mother was on full display, her voice halting and tinged with regret, as she described why she chose to get into his van with her children that night. At least some people seemed to understand her precarious, even desperate situation. One viewer commenting on News4Jax while watching her testimony said: "You know, I can't help but pick this video apart. Things that should've been done, things that could've happened, things that SHOULDN'T have happened. I want to scream at the mother right now for being so neglectful but, it wouldn't do any good. Her daughter is gone."
- The only person called during the trial who had encountered the Perrywinkle family before the abduction was Brad Calhoun, who, at the time was a manager at the Dollar General store where Smith stalked Cherish and her family. Calhoun told the jury he knew them as regulars at the store and found it odd that Smith, who he'd not seen before, was hanging around watching them -- at one point asking if the store carried adult magazines.
- A couple who saw Smith drive off from Walmart in his white van said he stopped to tell them, "We're going for cheeseburgers." They testified that they thought the exchange was so odd that, after a couple of minutes they took off looking for him and checked at a nearby McDonald's and Wendy's to see if his van was there.
- A mother who saw Smith's van with the back doors open behind Highlands Baptist Church the next morning testified that she called 911 because she had seen the Amber Alert that described the vehicle. When she and her daughter went back, the van was gone. The daughter testified that they drove around the area while they screamed "Cherish," hoping to hear her her crying for help. There was no reply.
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