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Testimony continues today in the death penalty murder trial surrounding the killing of eight-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle. Prosecutors have charged Donald Smith with kidnapping, raping, and murdering the girl after promising her struggling family to help them pay for clothes at a nearby Walmart.
In a swiftly-moving trial, Cherish’s mother testified about the agonizing 911 call she made to report that her child had been abducted. In an unprecedented move, Smith’s defense attorney told jurors to prepare for a critical cross-examination of the victim’s mother, but when the time came, Smith told his attorneys to stand down and to not cross-examine the mother.
A Walmart employee authenticated store surveillance footage which prosecutors say showed the defendant leading Cherish first to an in-store McDonald’s, then out of the store, then into the parking lot, and then into a white van. Two other Walmart patrons who were waiting for a relative in the parking lot testified that the defendant eerily stopped and told them he was heading to get food as he left the store. The conversation was bizarre, as it came out of the blue: they didn’t know the defendant or his alleged victim.
Later, after an AMBER Alert was issued for Cherish Perrywinkle and the defendant’s white van, three passers-by testified they saw a suspicious-looking white van in a marshy area near a church some twelve hours after the initial abduction. That tip, which included a 911 call from one group and an in-person drive to a police station by another witness, ultimately led to the defendant’s arrest. One of the arresting officers, Charles Wilkie, testified that the defendant’s movements upon arrest were strange, but didn’t further characterize them. Wilkie also discovered Cherish Perrywinkle’s body. He said the girl’s body was on its left side underneath a tree and that the girl’s hair was floating in the water. Wilkie preserved the scene, he testified, but had to be relieved at one point because he became “highly emotional.”
The state called just short of half of the 21 witnesses prosecutors promised to call.
It took nearly five years to bring the case to trial. A substantial amount of pretrial litigation involved Florida’s since-evolved death penalty process. The U.S. Supreme Court in January 2016 declared Florida’s death penalty procedures unconstitutional, leaving cases like the 2013 Cherish Perrywinkle murder in limbo until new procedures could be promulgated.
Pretrial litigation also involved attempts by the defense to demand that evidence be filed under seal in order to shield the defendant from pretrial publicity, which the defense characterized as extremely negative. That move was met with opposition by local journalists. Later, the defense sought to move the trial to another county due to the publicity the case garnered, but argued that almost every news outlet in the state was covering the case and, therefore, it would be hard to seat an unbiased jury. The judge concluded that an unbiased jury could be seated locally through a strong voir dire process, and the trial is being held in the Jacksonville area where the crime was committed. It took a week to narrow a 300-person pool down to twelve final jurors and four alternates. The final group of sixteen includes eight African-American women, four white men, three white women, and one Hispanic woman.
Police initially dealt with the case as a missing persons investigation, not an abduction, due to what appears to be a poor relay of information from a 911 dispatcher. The girl’s mother said Cherish was taken, but the 911 dispatcher told police the girl was missing. When police realized the gravity of what occurred, an AMBER Alert was issued, and the suspect’s van was located not long after.