He put on a maintenance man’s outfit and had a prison guard usher him to the spot between the inmates’ cells. There, the undercover police officer tinkered around as if he was fixing something but really he was placing a recorder in the pipe chase.
For the next seven days in June 2015 — two years after Cherish Perrywinkle was killed — the conversations between inmate Donald James Smith, a sex offender who was awaiting trial in the 2013 kidnapping, rape and strangulation of the 8-year, and another inmate were recorded.
Smith was asked about Cherish, “if she had some butt on her.”
“She had a lot for a white girl,” Smith was recorded saying.
The audio as well as a recording of Smith saying that 12- to 13-year-old girls were his target and that he wouldn’t mind running into a particular girl at Walmart were the last pieces of the state’s evidence presented to the jurors before the state rested its case Tuesday afternoon. After a short recess, the defense rested its case too without calling any witnesses.
“I don’t want to testify,” Smith, 61, told Judge Mallory Cooper.
There appeared to be a jovial spirit to the jury when they were ushered out of the courtroom for the day, a stark contrast to earlier when jurors were moved to tears after seeing photos of a maimed Cherish.
Cherish was last seen alive in a Lem Turner Road Walmart with Smith, now 61, in June 2013. Her body was found partially submerged in water some 10 miles away the following day. She had been raped and strangled.
The results of those violent acts — bruising, excessive tearing of tissue and broken blood vessels from hemorrhaging — were shown in photographs and explained in length to the jury Tuesday.
For many, including the medical examiner, the weight of it all was too much.
Just a few feet away from the jurors was Valerie Rao, the chief medical examiner for the 4th Judicial Circuit tasked with explaining her findings from Cherish’s autopsy.
“Bruising right here, right here, right here, a scratch here and a small bruise here,” she said pointing out just the left leg of Cherish.
Still left to show and describe to the jury were the bruises from excessive sucking on Cherish’s chest; the bruises on her buttocks; on her arms; her other leg; the ligature marks on her neck from the strangulation.
“There was tremendous force on her neck such that she could not breathe. She suffered swelling of the brain,” Rao said.
She explained how the vessels in the eyes are delicate and what happens to them when a person is being suffocated.
Then she explained and showed the aftermath of the rape on the 8-year-old girl: “So much trauma,” she said. ”… You can see all the tearing there.”
Rao asked for a moment to compose herself as she too was visually shaken.
After the jury left the room, Smith’s defense team called for a mistrial, suggesting Rao’s emotions were prejudicial.
Mark Caliel, one of the prosecutors, objected saying Rao — like the jury — was human and her proximity to jurors who were crying likely impacted her.
The judge denied the request for a mistrial.
The painful testimony Tuesday followed an emotional day Monday when jurors broke down after seeing photographs of Cherish’s body in the water. Earlier in the day Monday, images of Cherish twirling around in the Walmart store were also shown.
Rayne Perrywinkle, Cherish’s mother, agreed to go to the Walmart with Smith that day in Jacksonville, prosecutors and Perrywinkle have said. After seeing her at a Dollar General store, he told her he would buy her children clothes and food.
In addition to the testimony from the medical examiner, the jury on Tuesday also heard from a DNA expert from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who testified about the positive match in the DNA samples. Also two people testified about the discovery of a stroller and belongings purchased from the Dollar General.
Perrywinkle told authorities she placed a blue-baby stroller and the goods she purchased from the Dollar General in Smith’s van and left them there when she, Smith and her three daughters went inside the Walmart to shop.
After Smith was arrested, police did not find any stroller or bags of goods in his van. According to testimony Tuesday, the stroller and goods were recovered at a home two-tenths of a mile from the spot where Cherish’s body was discovered in August 2013.
Closing statements are to begin around 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. If the jury comes back with guilty verdicts on kidnapping, sexual battery and murder charges, then it will have to reassemble to decide if Smith will be sentenced to death. That, if it happens, may not be until next week.