Donald James Smith could face the death penalty

By Steve Helling
February 14, 2018 12:08 PM

Donald James Smith has been found guilty of kidnapping, raping and murdering 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle in a Florida courtroom Wednesday, PEOPLE confirms.

The jury deliberated for only 15 minutes before convicting Smith, 61. Sentencing is scheduled for next week, and Smith faces the death penalty.

The day before the verdict, Rayne Perrywinkle took the stand in a Florida courtroom to describe the worst day of her life — the day her 8-year-old daughter, Cherish, was killed.

Her voice wavering, she told the jury that she was approached by Smith while she was shopping with her two daughters at a Family Dollar discount store.

According to Perrywinkle, Smith offered to help them buy clothes at a nearby Walmart. When she initially hesitated, she says Smith told her that his wife had a $100 gift card and would meet them at the store. Rayne Perrywinkle told police that she told him, “I don’t usually go with strangers, but if your wife is coming, then it’s OK.”

In court, Perrywinkle says that Smith reassured her that she and her daughters were not in danger. “He looked into my face and told me I was safe,” she testified.

The girls soon started to get hungry, Perrywinkle testified. She said Smith offered to get them food at the McDonald’s inside Walmart. Video surveillance later showed Smith and Cherish Perrywinkle walking out of the Walmart.

When Perrywinkle couldn’t find her daughter, she began to panic. Because she didn’t have a cellphone, she pleaded with others for help.

“I was yelling, ‘Call 911. My daughter’s been taken.’ And no one wouldn’t, no one would help me right away,” she tearfully testified. Someone eventually gave her a phone to call authorities.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement

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PEOPLE has obtained the 911 call made in June 2013. “I had a bad feeling about him,” Rayne Perrywinkle tells the dispatcher. “I don’t want him to kill her. He wanted her to buy these really tall shoes that were women’s shoes and I told him, ‘No.’ I said, ‘They’re too high for her. I wouldn’t even wear shoes that high.’ Maybe he was grooming her. I hope to God he doesn’t kill her and I hope to God he doesn’t rape her.”

The next morning, Cherish’s half-naked body — still wearing the same orange dress she wore to Walmart – was found under a fallen tree in a grassy marsh area several miles away.

Smith had strangled, tortured and raped Cherish.

Donald James Smith pictured 2013.
Will Dickey/The Florida Times-Union/AP

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On Tuesday, the medical examiner began to cry when describing Cherish’s death and asked to take a break from testimony. Several jurors became emotional as they saw graphic photos of Cherish’s body.

The testimony came one day after State Attorney Melissa Nelson gave a devastating opening statement. “Cherish did not die quickly, and she did not die easily,” she told jurors. “In fact, hers was a brutal and tortured death.”

Smith Is Registered Sex Offender With Long Criminal History

According to records obtained by PEOPLE, Smith has a long criminal history. In 1977, he was convicted of lewd and lascivious behavior on a child under 16. In 1993, he was sentenced to five years in prison for the attempted kidnapping of a minor. He is registered as a sex offender.

Last year he pleaded guilty to attempted impersonation of a public employee and attempted child abuse by mental harm. He spent a year in jail and was released just three weeks before Cherish was found dead.

During the defense opening statement, attorney Julie Schlax urged jurors to focus on the law rather than emotion.

“We are here in this courtroom because the state of Florida is seeking the death penalty, and you have just heard an emotionally charged opening statement designed to anger you,” Schlax told jurors. “What we are asking you to do is to ask the state of Florida to live up to the burdens of proof, because they share it alone.”

The prosecution rested on Tuesday afternoon. In a surprising move, the defense rested without presenting a single witness.