Donald Smith trial: 5 things to know about the high-profile case

By Garrett Pelican - Digital executive producer
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The trial of Donald Smith, the 61-year-old sex offender charged in the abduction, rape and murder of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle, is underway.

Jury selection began Monday at the Duval County courthouse, where attorneys for both sides are expected to screen 300 potential jurors in search of an impartial panel.

The State Attorney’s Office is seeking the death penalty for Smith, who has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, kidnapping and sexual battery counts in the case.

The trial will bookend the high-profile case that began in June 2013 when the child’s lifeless body was found dumped behind a church on Jacksonville’s Northside.

We will have live coverage tracking the latest developments in this case on Channel 4 and online at News4Jax.com. Here are five things you need to know before the trial begins:

  • This marks the first death penalty trial in the Fourth Judicial Circuit since the reinstatement last spring of Florida’s death penalty. Death penalty cases were put on hold after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s law in 2016. That hiatus ended last March when the Florida Legislature passed a new law requiring a judge to get unanimous approval from a jury before imposing the death sentence.
  • The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office disciplined several employees and changed policies about how it handled reported abductions in the wake of this case. Police came under fire for the delays in notifying the media of Cherish’s abduction. The official sequence of events revealed that six hours ticked by from the time her mother called 911 to when police announced the kidnapping. It took another half hour for the state to issue an Amber Alert. 
  • The state toughened its stance on sex offenders and predators as a result of this case. Among the bills passed by the Florida Legislature in 2014 was a measure allowing the state to civilly commit dangerous sex offenders upon their release from county jail. The previous law only allowed commitment for offenders released from prison. Another bill increased the mandatory minimum sentence for those convicted of raping children from 25 to 50 years.
  • Donald Smith's arrest in Cherish Perrywinkle’s death wasn’t his first scrape with the law. News4Jax records show Smith's criminal history dates back to a 1977 arrest for lewd and lascivious act in the presence of a minor. Several arrests followed in the ensuing years, including one that led to his 1992 attempted kidnapping conviction after he tried to lure two teenage girls into his van.
  • Smith was released from prison three weeks before Cherish’s murder. He was arrested in September 2009 on felony charges for trying to get access to a child by posing as a Department of Children and Families employee. He was released from the Duval County jail after serving 438 days. His release came May 31, 2013 – just 21 days before he was arrested in Cherish’s death.

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