JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Nearly five years after Cherish Perrywinkle’s tortured body was found discarded in the woods behind a Jacksonville church, a judge ruled Wednesday that the man who kidnapped, raped and strangled her should pay for his crimes with his life.
Circuit Judge Mallory Cooper, who delayed her retirement to see the case through, sentenced Donald Smith to death for the 8-year-old girl’s murder in a widely anticipated ruling that upheld the unanimous recommendation from a jury.
"You have not only forfeited your right to live among us, but under the laws of the state of Florida, you have forfeited your right to life at all," Cooper said as she handed down the sentence. " … Donald James Smith, may God have mercy on your soul."
Smith, 61, whose defense fought unsuccessfully for a new trial and penalty phase Wednesday, will be transferred at some point to the Department of Corrections where he will be held on death row while awaiting an automatic review of his sentence by the state Supreme Court.
Wednesday’s ruling bookends a high-profile murder trial marked at times by emotional testimony and graphic evidence that helped piece together Cherish’s final hours after she was last seen leaving a Northside Walmart with Smith on June 21, 2013.
Her half-naked body was found the following day.
Led by State Attorney Melissa Nelson, the prosecution’s case wove together pieces of physical evidence, anguished testimony from Cherish’s mother, Rayne Perrywinkle, and a graphic accounting of the horrors the 8-year-old girl endured at Smith’s hands.
It took the jury only 12 minutes of deliberation in February to find Smith guilty of first-degree murder, sexual battery and kidnapping charges in the case. A week later, after two days of closing arguments, jurors unanimously agreed that he deserved to die.
Perrywinkle, who was present during Wednesday’s hearing, was overcome with emotion after the ruling. "It’s like I never thought this day would come and now it’s here, and now I’m just stumped for words," she told News4Jax.
She did, however, have words for her daughter’s killer. "I want him to burn in hell," she said.
While Nelson and Assistant State Attorney Mark Caliel expressed relief afterward, neither celebrated. Instead, they were focused on Cherish's family and the potential appeals still to come from Smith.
"It is very difficult to ever celebrate a capital sentence," said Caliel. "You are talking about an individual, no matter what he has done."
The outcome also came as a relief to juror Paul Hinson, who was glad Cooper sided with the jury's recommendation. He said he showed up to court to see how it turned out in person.
"If there were any technicalities, we wanted to hear it firsthand," Hinson said.
Despite Wednesday's ruling, the case is far from over because Smith is eligible for appeals down the road. That doesn't faze Caliel, who said prosecutors plan to go the distance.
"We know it will be a long process until we get to finality with the sentence, but we are prepared to go that long road until justice is served for Cherish," he said.