Prosecutors describe emotional impact of Cherish Perrywinkle case

Proving Donald Smith guilty affected Nelson, Caliel as parents, attorneys

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Donald Smith will learn May 2 if he will be sentenced to death or life in prison for his conviction in the rape and murder of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle.

Thirty-five days before he learns his fate, State Attorney Melissa Nelson and lead prosecutor Mark Caliel sat down Thursday with News4Jax for a 40-minute interview to talk about the emotional impact the case has had on their lives.

Nelson and Caliel said as parents, they were both angered and saddened by the ruthlessness of the case. But as attorneys, they knew the evidence would help them prove that Smith was guilty. 

"I think this case is among the worst of the worst, so we also sent the message that the highest levels of the office were behind the prosecution of this matter," Nelson said.

WATCH: Donald Smith prosecutors forever changed

She still remembers the moment she first heard the name "Donald Smith."

"I remember very well when this case happened, and I followed it with great interest, as many people in the community did," she said. "I was horrified. I have a daughter that is close in age to Cherish and was at the time Cherish was kidnapped and murdered. So it affected me on a personal level, as it did every parent, and it affected me as a citizen of this community, as well."

When Smith took Cherish from a Northside Walmart, and raped and strangled her in June 2013, Nelson was an attorney in private practice. Nearly four years later, when Nelson was sworn in as the new state attorney for Florida's Fourth Judicial Circuit Court, the case was still on her mind.

"I asked Mark if he would be so kind to let me join him in trying the case," Nelson recounted.

Caliel welcomed the idea. They would add Vanessa Sanchez to the case as well.

From the beginning, Caliel said, he felt that the case was different.

"This case was even more eerie," he said. "We hadn't found her yet. By the time I responded to the scene, Donald Smith was taken into custody on (Interstate) 95, shortly after I arrived."

Caliel was there the moment Cherish's body was found in a creek behind a church.

"To be there in that moment was surreal. It was chilling to be there when she was actually found," he said.

He said his first thought was "anger."

"I have a daughter myself," Caliel said. "It is horrifying to stand over a little girl's body knowing that somebody took her in that manner. And your first reaction is anger, and then it's determination. What do we need to do to make sure this person is held responsible for what he did?" 

The prosecutors believed they had a strong case from the beginning.

Walmart surveillance video shows Cherish walking out front door with Donald Smith.

"It was amazing how the case, as tragic as it was, came together so quickly," Caliel said. "The surveillance videos of the Dollar General and Walmart were particularly surreal. The idea that, after the fact, the jury would be looking at the moments before. And the taillights -- you just want to scream at the camera, 'No. No. No. Stop. Rewind.'" 

Last month, jurors unanimously recommended the death penalty for Smith, 61, after finding him guilty of first-degree murder, sexual battery and kidnapping charges.

Nelson and Caliel said they were not surprised that the defense didn't call witnesses for Smith during the guilty phase, but did call his son during the penalty phase.

"We believe their strategy was going to be hopeful to find a juror, at least one, that would not vote for the death penalty," Nelson said.

"I think that the aggravation in this case was so weighty that nothing could compare to what he did and the gravity of the crime that he committed," Caliel said. 

But before the trial began, they did worry about finding enough jurors, because there had been so much coverage of the case in the media.

I did have some concern going in as to what the media impact would have on the prospective jurors," Caliel said. "We were pleasantly surprised about how much prospective  jurors knew about the case."

Now, as Smith waits to learn his sentence, the prosecutors reflected on how the case has changed their lives.

"Just the innocence of her youth made this particularly sad," Nelson said.

"You carry with you forever, as a prosecutor, the faces and the names for those that you try to give voice to in the courtroom," Caliel said.

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