Duval County

Cherish Perrywinkle case: Justices take up appeal from Donald Smith, man sentenced to death in Jacksonville girl’s murder

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — More than seven years after an 8-year-old girl was abducted from a Jacksonville Walmart, raped and murdered, the Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments this week about whether a man sentenced to death in the slaying should receive a new trial.

The June 2013 murder of Cherish Perrywinkle drew huge amounts of news coverage and public attention in Jacksonville, with a jury in 2018 finding Donald James Smith guilty and a judge sending him to Death Row.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday in an appeal by Smith, whose attorney contends, in part, that the trial should have been moved out of Duval County because of the heavy pretrial publicity. Attorney H. Kate Bedell wrote in a brief this year at the Supreme Court that Circuit Judge Mallory Cooper erred in denying a change of venue.

RELATED: Mother of Cherish Perrywinkle says daughter’s killer doesn’t deserve new trial

Cherish Perrywinkle

“Specifically, the pretrial publicity was so expansive that it saturated the community for years, provided a one-sided and continuous narrative leading to one conclusion at trial, Mr. Smith’s inevitable conviction, and death sentence,” the brief said.

But Senior Assistant Attorney General Charmaine Millsaps argued in a brief that Smith’s trial attorneys did not meet legal tests for a change of venue. Also, Millsaps pointed to the long period of time between the murder and the trial.

“There was over four years between this crime and jury selection,” Millsaps wrote. “Furthermore, Duval County is a large diverse county with hundreds of thousands of eligible jurors of which it is difficult to believe that twelve unbiased jurors, uninfluenced by the publicity and indifferent to, or even totally unaware of, social media posts, could not be found.”

Smith, now 64, was accused of murdering Cherish Perrywinkle after a series of events that began when he met her mother, Rayne Perrywinkle, at a Dollar General store. Smith told Rayne Perrywinkle that he would take her and her daughters shopping at a Walmart.

While at Walmart, Smith said he would buy the family cheeseburgers at a McDonald’s at the store but left with Cherish Perrywinkle in a van. He was convicted of raping and strangling the child and leaving her body in a creek.

Smith was convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping of a victim under age 13 and sexual battery on a victim under age 12. In addition to the death sentence for the murder, he received life sentences on the kidnapping and sexual battery charges.

Smith’s appeal to the Supreme Court seeks a new trial and raises a series of issues, including arguing that the circuit judge erred by allowing autopsy photos of Cherish Perrywinkle to be used during the trial.

Comments on this article