JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Prosecutor Mark Caliel said he knew from the moment he stood over 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle's tortured, lifeless body that he would do everything in his power to help get her justice.
More than four years later, he listened as Judge Mallory Cooper announced a Jacksonville jury's recommendation of the death penalty for Donald Smith.
Caliel and State Attorney Melissa Nelson choked up later as they shared with reporters how personal the little girl's case had become to them.
“I have a daughter. She was 13 at the time when this crime occurred. It hit close to home,” Caliel said. “I was there that morning. I was standing over Cherish when Officer (Charlie) Wilkie found her.”
Wilkie and his K-9, Gator, discovered Cherish's half-naked body on June 22, 2013, wedged under a log in a marshy, wooded area behind a Northside church.
The medical examiner determined Cherish had been brutally raped and strangled.
“You have to try to compartmentalize that when you're a prosecutor and do what's right and keep sound judgment in handling the case,” Caliel said, becoming emotional as he recalled what he saw the day Cherish was found. “That little girl deserved justice, and we believe this jury gave that to her today.”
Nelson said she was happy to have played a role in helping to bring Cherish's mother, Rayne Perrywinkle, some closure.
Nelson warned the jurors at the beginning of the trial last week that hearing the case would change them. She said it's changed her, too.
“This is one of the worst cases I've ever seen. The facts are horrific,” she said.
Those facts, she said, were why her office never even considered a plea deal for life in prison.
If the death penalty wasn't appropriate in this case, then when would it be, Nelson said.
“This was as bad as it gets. He kidnapped a little girl from her mother,” Nelson said of Smith. “We can only imagine the fear she must have felt in the last hours of her life. It's horrific. Life was never a sentence we were going to consider in this case.”
Caliel said the case affected the whole community because it was every parent's worst nightmare.
“We've all had that feeling when we turn in the grocery store and, 'Oh my gosh, where did they go?'” he said. “Cherish never came back. That type of emotion galvanizes a community. No matter where you were, you remember what happened in Jacksonville that weekend.”
When the Amber Alert went out for Cherish, describing the white van Smith was driving, the community responded and several women reported seeing the van behind Highlands Baptist Church.
Those tips led Wilkie and Gator to the woods, where they found Cherish.
The orange dress she was wearing the night before when she walked out of a Jacksonville Walmart with Smith, believing they were getting cheeseburgers, was still hanging around her.
Wilkie testified during the trial that his daughter had the same dress.
Nelson said her daughter did, too, and that she and Wilkie cried together as they prepared before the trial for his testimony.
“We didn't always keep it together,” Nelson admitted as reporters questioned how she and Caliel were able to keep their emotions in check over the course of the trial.
Caliel said he kept his focus by never forgetting why he was there.
“We do it for our victims. We do it to support those who do not have a voice any longer, and that makes it easy,” Caliel said. “It makes it easy when you know you're doing the right thing and you're standing up for that little girl.”