JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It took a jury only 12 minutes to confirm Wednesday what most of the Jacksonville community has known for more than four years: Donald Smith raped and strangled Cherish Perrywinkle.
Smith, 61, was convicted of kidnapping, rape and murder in the 8-year-old's 2013 death after prosecutors spent two days making their case that Smith took Cherish from a Northside Walmart, brutally raped her and choked the life out of her before dumping her half-naked body as if it were garbage.
Cherish's mother, Rayne Perrywinkle, listened in court Wednesday as her daughter finally received justice. She said she won't comment on the trial until after Smith is sentenced.
Cherish's father, Billy Jarreau, told News4Jax by phone from California that, now that the trial is over, he's not sure how he feels.
"I'm still kind of shocked," he said. "The wounds are back."
He said he's relieved that Smith was found guilty, but the verdict won't bring his daughter back. She would be 13 years old now.
"It's been a nightmare since (her murder)," Jarreau said. "It just doesn’t feel real. You don’t think these things would happen to you."
Smith, the man with whom Cherish was last seen, was arrested the morning after she disappeared in June 2013. Her body was discovered in a creek behind a church soon after he was in custody.
Repeated delays in the court system stretched for more than four years before the case finally went to trial this week.
Jarreau said the delays made today's verdict almost surreal. He said it's been so long since Cherish was killed that her death became "like a story."
"We kind of kept up with it and went on with our everyday lives," he said. "This brought back a lot of old wounds."
Smith, who showed almost no emotion when he was declared guilty in court, will now either spend the rest of his life in prison or be put to death. Perrywinkle and Jarreau both want Smith to get the death penalty.
"People like that don’t deserve to walk the street, and they don’t deserve to be in jail," Jarreau said.
In a surprise move, Smith's defense team declined to deliver closing arguments Wednesday, following a pattern in which Smith chose to offer little defense for his crimes during the trial.
Following two days of testimony, prosecutor Mark Caliel painted a vivid picture during closing arguments Wednesday of a little girl being hunted by a monster.
Caliel said Cherish weighed only 67 pounds when she died.
"He may not look like much of a threat," Caliel said, pointing at Smith in the courtroom, "but on that night, in comparison to that little girl, he had the strength of a giant."
Caliel said Smith singled out Cherish and lured her away from the safety of her family, lulling her into a false sense of security with lies before he drove out of the parking lot "where no eyes could see and no ears could hear."
“That little girl had to endure a nightmare no child should ever endure,” Caliel said, recounting the stomach-turning details the medical examiner shared the day before about the brutal rape and agonizing death Cherish suffered. “You could tell from the damage in her eyes that she fought for the last breath in her body."
After recapping the evidence presented by experts, Caliel asked the jury to pause and reflect for three minutes about all they had heard and seen the last two days. Three minutes, he said, was how long Cherish fought for her last breaths.
“From the grave, she's crying out to you: 'Donald Smith raped me. ... Donald Smith strangled me until every last breath left my body,'” Caliel said. “In the final moments of her life, this defendant took from that little girl everything that was innocent and pure. And then he took her life. Now it's time to hold him accountable for what he did.”
The jurors did just that. On Tuesday, they will begin the process of deciding whether Smith will be sentenced to death.
Perrywinkle was not alone in court Wednesday as the verdict was read. She was surrounded by friends and victim advocates, including Ron Davis, whose son, Jordan Davis, was murdered in another high-profile Jacksonville case.
Ron Davis said he sat in the same courtroom to hear that his son's killer was guilty. He said that his son's case was different from Cherish's, but that he and Perrywinkle share the pain of losing a child to murder.
"She is a victim. Her daughter was a victim," Davis said. "I think Jacksonville should support her."
Davis said it was critical for Perrywinkle to tell the world why she decided to trust Smith, which she did as the state's opening witness Monday.
"She found her courage, and her testimony told the jury how she felt about her daughter, and why she let her daughter walk with this man," Davis said. "This was a mother that cared about her daughter."
Perrywinkle testified Monday that Smith lured her family to the Lem Turner Road Walmart with promises to buy clothing after he met them at a Dollar General. When Smith offered later to get cheeseburgers, Cherish went with him, Perrywinkle said.
UNCUT VIDEOS: Rayne Perrywinkle's testimony |
Medical examiner's entire testimony (Caution: Contains graphic details) |
Judge confirms Donald Smith does not want to testify
She testified through tears that she thought the two were going to the McDonald's at the front of the store, and she would never have let Cherish leave the Walmart with Smith.
Security video showed the little girl skipping out the door behind Smith, wearing a bright orange dress.
That same dress was found the next morning with Cherish's body, when Jacksonville Sheriff's Office K-9 Gator tracked to the edge of the water where her body had been dumped behind Highlands Baptist Church.
Gator's handler, Officer Charlie Wilkie, said during his testimony Monday that the dress stood out in his memory because his daughter had the same one.
The scene that Wilkie and Gator found -- and what happened to Cherish before her body was left there -- were described Tuesday in explicit detail for the jury by Duval County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Valerie Rao.
Her testimony and the autopsy photos that accompanied it drew tears from some jurors.
At one point, Rao become emotional herself and asked for a break in her testimony, prompting a mistrial motion from Smith's defense attorney. Judge Mallory Cooper denied the motion.
After Rao testified to what Cherish (pictured) endured and how she was killed, a DNA expert took the stand to confirm that Smith's DNA was found inside Cherish's body. The chance of the DNA belonging to anyone but Smith, she said, were 1 in 12 quadrillion.
Prosecutors wrapped up their case by playing a wiretap recording of Smith in which he can be heard telling another inmate that his target area is young girls.
“I would like to run into her at Walmart,” Smith said of a 12-year-old girl taking a tour of the jail.
Smith declined to testify in his own defense, and his attorneys rested their case without calling any witnesses.