JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Few people know the inner workings of Donald Smith’s mind better than Dr. Heather Holmes. The clinical and forensic psychologist has interviewed Smith three times since 2015 and, at the request of his defense, studied his background extensively, dating back to a 1977 psychological profile.
As jurors weigh whether Smith deserves life or death in the high-profile murder trial, Holmes took the stand Tuesday during the penalty phase to answer a host of questions, ranging from ones about his upbringing and unusually close relationship with his mother to those about the origins of his sexually deviant behavior.
Perhaps her most telling response was also one of the most damning. It came under cross examination from State Attorney Melissa Nelson: “You have the opinion that he is one of the most dangerous sex offenders you have ever evaluated?”
“Yes, he is,” Holmes said.
She also testified that her research did not find anything mitigating about him or the crimes a jury convicted him of last week. In other words, there was nothing in his past -- no “Aha!” moment -- that diminished the heinousness of the rape and murder of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle.
“I would love to say that there was this one defining moment in his childhood. I mean, he certainly had an inappropriate relationship with his mom, but a lot of people do and they don’t turn out to be pedophiles that have murdered a child,” said Holmes.
Growing up without his biological father in the picture, she said, Smith was raised by his mother and in part by two stepfathers. She said the family moved around frequently, limiting his ability to forge long-term friendships and relationships.
Holmes said those circumstances “enhanced the closeness that he had with his mom,” which she characterized as the “single most important relationship he’s ever had and possibly the only important relationship he’s ever had.” The two were so close, she said, that Smith’s mother paid off his drug debts.
Based on her findings, Holmes said Smith meets the criteria to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder and pedophilic disorder. She said he's also shown traits of borderline personality disorder.
“Antisocial people are people who do what they need to do to get ahead in the world,” she said. “They’re more comfortable with lying, cheating and stealing than someone who does not have this. They have a limited capacity for remorse.”
Holmes said Smith admitted to being sexually attracted to children, saying that he had long fantasized about those thoughts. She said that while there is no cure, there is treatment available that focuses on getting pedophiles to recognize their triggers and change their behavior.
But she acknowledged that Smith has resisted treatment and medication in the past.
She said those with borderline personality features have a difficult time taking responsibility for their actions, a habit she indicated Smith has demonstrated over the years, from denying involvement in a 1992 abduction attempt to blaming his lawyers in another case.
It would appear that pattern held true in Cherish’s case, too.
Holmes stated that Smith admitted raping and killing the 8-year-old girl, though he showed no visible sign of remorse. In fact, she said, he actually tried to pin the blame on the child for her own murder – after all, she got into his van.
“I’m a convicted sex offender,” Smith thought, according to Holmes’ testimony. “How am I going to explain this?”