Expert: Cherish Perrywinkle's killer affected by brain injuries

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The defense for convicted child killer Donald Smith — the man who raped and murdered 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle in Jacksonville in 2013 — is working to keep him from getting a death sentence.

Much of the testimony heard Wednesday during the penalty phase of his trial focused on injuries and abuse he suffered as a child.

It’s all part of the defense's effort to show that Smith not only has mental illness, but his brain is physically abnormal.

Dr. Joesph Wu testified for the defense and said that Smith had suffered two significant brain injuries in his life.

The doctor said that brain injuries could result in antisocial behaviors. He also said an injury on the right side of his brain can result in his sexual orientation being shifted toward children.

Smith has been allegedly raped by two male inmates in the Duval County Jail in 1997.

Dr. Wu said Smith was abused by both his mother and father and that Smith was sexually molested at the age of 8 by two older neighborhood boys.

The State of Florida worked to show the murder of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle was a deliberate act not to fulfill those urges, but to cover up his crime.

“So, Mr. Smith, he’s stepping on the gas. He has his left hemisphere works fine. But the brakes don’t work well," said Dr. Joseph Sesta, who testified as an expert witness in neuropsychology. "And therefore, things like anger, aggression, sexuality ... in order for us to all live together in harmony, we have to be able to put the brakes on behaviors that aren’t socially appropriate.

"Mr. Smith has deficits in the parts of his brain that help him to brake or control behavior."

Unlike prior witnesses, Sesta met with Smith for more than five hours- and it was as a result of that meeting that the brain scans were actually done on Smith. Sesta says those scans validated his in person assessment.

“Compared to people who are just like him, his brain doesn’t function normally,” he said.

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Posted by Action News Jax on Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Sesta differed from other witnesses in that he doesn't believe Smith is suffering from CTE. He has diagnosed mild to moderate brain injury, but is unsure of the cause.

Beyond the physiological elements, Sesta says he believes Smith is a “psychopath”, meaning he’s at a high threshold of both committing bad acts and being a bad person, which manifests through personality traits like a lack of empathy, remorse, and compassion.

Other witnesses have testified that Smith was mentally ill, with diagnoses for major depressive disorder, antisocial personality, and more. Sesta says Smith told him during their meeting that he had previously tried to obtain a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

“If you were trying to fake a disorder, this would be your Bible to guide you to what symptoms you should produce,” he said.

He, in fact, discounted what Smith told him during a personality testing portion of their meeting, because of what he believed to be “grossly overdone” faking.

“This is what psychopaths do. They’re manipulative, they’re cunning, they’re going to try to trick you and fool you. So no, I wasn’t surprised this is what Mr. Smith did,” Sesta said.

What makes this case unique to what Sesta has seen before, is that combination of Smith being a pedophile, a psychopath, and suffering the brain impairment. He says the pedophilic urges were "extremely strong", as evidenced by Smith's actions in this case and at least one prior one.

Sesta said Smith acted different than most pedophiles, though, in a key area -- he says most pedophiles don’t kill.

"You can't do what Mr. Smith did to Cherish and expect it not to go unnoticed," Sesta said, regarding the autopsy photos he had reviewed.

That’s an area the state seized on.

“It was your opinion that he killed her because he thought that he needed to avoid capture, or he benefitted by not having her alive,” asked Assistant State Attorney Mark Caliel.

“Oh sure, I agree with that. He’s not dumb,” Sesta said.

While the defense has continually argued that Smith had no control over his impulses, leading to the actions of that night, prosecutors have argued the murder was a premeditated act.

“I think that after he had done what he did to her body, that the only thing he could do would be to take her life,” Sesta said.

“So eliminating her as a witness,” Caliel asked.

“Absolutely,” Sesta said.