JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The 25-year-old son of convicted child rapist and killer Donald Smith testified Wednesday during the sentencing phase of his father's trial, sharing both the bad and good sides of his father.
Smith was found guilty last week of kidnapping, sexual battery and first-degree murder in the June 2013 death of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle. The jury that convicted him must now decide whether to recommend the death penalty or life in prison for Smith.
Smith took Cherish from a Jacksonville Walmart, brutally raped her, strangled her and dumped her body in a creek behind a church.
The final witness called by the defense Wednesday as they wrapped up their efforts to convince the jurors to show mercy to Smith was the 61-year-old's adult son.
Donald Smith Jr., who testified remotely via video from Maine, admitted that his father's absence because of frequent prison stints likely contributed to the beginnings of a drug habit that lasted nearly a decade.
He said he even did illegal drugs with his father as early as 16 years old.
He said he's been sober for about four years now “by the power of God” and is attending Bible college.
“I've had a really crazy life. It wasn't all his fault, but I didn't have that father figure around to lead me in the right ways,” Smith Jr. said. “When I found drugs, I wasn't seeking them to ease pain, but I found out that it did ease pain and help me to forget.”
The younger Smith said that since his father has been in the Duval County jail, following his arrest in Cherish's killing, he's developed a relationship with him that he doesn't believe he could have had if the older Smith was still “on the streets.”
“We don't really talk about the past or anything,” Smith Jr. said. “We just talk about me and my life right now. This is something that he wasn't able to do before when he was out on the streets because he was chasing the drug, which I know exactly what that's like. It changes who you are, and it changes what your priorities are. It comes first.”
He said he now looks forward to his weekly chats with his father and that he believes his father's mistakes in raising him have taught him valuable lessons about what he wants to do differently with his own children.
Smith's family history
Dr. Brooke Butler, who is part of the defense team, testified Wednesday that she compiled a history of Donald Smith Sr.'s life based on records, interviews with Smith and interviews with dozens of other people.
She said that history included three stepfathers, dropping out of school in the 10th grade and a family history of mental illness and addiction on both sides of his biological family.
Butler said Smith's drug problems began as young as sixth grade, and that he at one point blew at least $100,000 of an inheritance from one of his stepfathers on crack cocaine in just one week.
Butler testified that Smith's mother enabled his addiction without acknowledging that he had a drug problem.
She said Smith's drug use was well-documented and that he even went by "Cocaine Wheezy" when he was high.
She said that based on Smith's accounts to her, he was sexually molested as a child by two neighborhood boys and that he intentionally crashed his car at one point, attempting suicide.
During cross-examination, prosecutor Mark Caliel pointed out that the only evidence of the childhood sexual abuse and the car crash was Smith's own statements.
Doctors testify about Smith's brain
Two doctors took the stand Wednesday to explain that Smith's brain doesn't function like that of a normal human.
They used different methods to evaluate his brain and his neurological symptoms and both concluded that Smith lacks impulse control, which combined with his pedophilia, could have contributed to Cherish's death.
Psychologist Joseph Sesta, who interviewed Smith for more than five hours, said "there's no question that Donald Smith does not have a normal human brain."
He said that was the answer he could offer for how we can sleep at night knowing a human being could do what Smith did to a small child.
"This is not something that people with normal brains do," he said, pointing to brain damage that he said prevents Smith from hitting the "brakes" on his bad behavior sparked when his brain hits the "gas" on his pedophilia and psychopathy.
But, Sesta said, that does not absolve Smith of responsibility for his crimes.
“Mr. Smith is responsible for his behavior,” Sesta said. “I think he knew what he was doing (to Cherish), and I think he knew what he was doing was wrong.”
He said Smith clearly killed Cherish to eliminate her as a witness after he damaged her little body beyond concealment.
“You can't do what Mr. Smith did to Cherish and expect it to go unnoticed,” he said, adding that he had looked through 1,200 horrific autopsy images in preparation for the case.
Dr. Joseph Wu, a neuropsychiatrist, highlighted scans of Smith's brain that he said show evidence of traumatic injury.
Wu said the damage to the right side of Smith's brain could result in hypersexuality or sexual disinhibition and could release pedophilic orientation.
Wu testified that the history Smith provided to Butler included abuse by his mother, verbal and physical abuse by his father, sexual abuse at age 8, and being raped when he was in jail in 1997.
Wu said Smith's abuse history and brain abnormalities created the "perfect storm" that could lead to "catastrophic failure in impulse control," which could result in a destructive life.
Under cross-examination, Wu admitted that because he had not personally interviewed Smith, he could not determine whether what Smith did Cherish was a conscious choice or a symptom of his lack of impulse control.
He explained that what he was assessing were risk factors, similar to those for a heart attack, but that he could not use those factors to predict what Smith or any other patient might do.
Penalty phase begins
The state called only one witness for the penalty phase -- a woman who tearfully recounted the day more than 25 years ago when Smith tried to kidnap her. She was 13 years old at the time.
UNCUT: Kerri-Anne Buck describes day Donald Smith tried to kidnap her
(WARNING: Contains explicit language)
Smith's defense followed with a series of psychologists, neurologists and attorneys who testified to his mental condition and previous crimes.
One of those witnesses, forensic psychologist Dr. Heather Holmes, said Smith admitted to her that he raped and killed Cherish but also blamed Cherish for following him out of the Walmart and getting into his van.
Holmes testified that Smith has a history of blaming others for his crimes, and that he had an almost inappropriately close relationship with his mother. She declined to point to that relationship as a reason for his crimes.
“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,” Holmes said.
Dr. Geoff Colino, a forensic neurologist, went over a series of MRI and other test results for Smith, explaining to the jury that the 61-year-old has areas of abnormality throughout his brain that could affect his impulse control, memory, inhibitions and ability to learn from negative experiences -- like being sent to jail for sex crimes.
State Attorney Melissa Nelson challenged several points Colino made during her cross-examination, saying that his testimony was not consistent with his deposition that he gave before the trial.
Nelson said during her opening statement that the state needs to prove only one aggravating factor for the jury to be able to recommend the death penalty. There are six in this case, she argued.
For the judge to be able to sentence Smith to death, the 12 jurors must unanimously recommend the death penalty. If they do not, he will be sentenced to life in prison.