***WARNING: The content and language within the videos are graphic and can be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.***
“Cherish Perrywinkle was 8 years old. She weighed 67 pounds.”
Those are the words prosecutors used to open the 2018 death penalty trial of Donald Smith, the 56-year-old man that the girl spent her final hours with.
Cherish was kidnapped from a Northside Walmart in June 2013, three weeks after her killer – a known sex offender – was released from prison.
She was raped and strangled. Her body was stuffed under a log in a tidal creek.
The case -- both savage and senseless -- horrified the First Coast. Five years later, Cherish’s killer was sentenced to death.
Throughout it all, Smith kept his silence. He refused to talk to police in 2013. He declined to testify at his 2018 trial. He’s remained publicly mute ever since.
Now, for the first time, he speaks.
In never-before-heard jailhouse conversations, Smith blames Cherish for her own murder. He schemes with his mother to fake a mental illness. And he practically gloats about his rank among the most notorious criminals.
First Coast News obtained the videos through a public records request after Smith’s death penalty trial. Smith is currently on death row, but at the time the videos were made, he was at the Duval County Jail.
Investigators placed a camera above the phone Smith used to communicate with his mom, Patricia Moore, during Friday visits. The state originally had planned to use them at the trial, but they didn't.
The audio isn’t great. Smith knows he’s being monitored. He often whispers to his mom, or uses sign language.
The tapes aren’t just sometimes hard to hear. They’re hard to listen to.
One thing that’s abundantly clear in these recordings is the anger Smith felt toward his 8-year-old victim.
“'It’s your fault that I’m going to die,’” he recalled thinking. “I was raging.”
He describes feeling panic and confusion, but also fury.
“My mind just left me," he recalled. "All I knew is you gotta go, you have to go! I don’t care how, you gotta go.”
In one 16-minute rambling, Smith runs through the outline of his crime: meeting Cherish with her mother and two little sisters at a Dollar General on West Edgewood Avenue and then driving them to the Lem Turner Walmart.
He says he panicked when the girl left the store with him – and he admits the murder. But in response to a question from his mom, he initially denies the rape.
“No. How do you make it with an 8-year-old girl?" he said. "I don’t view children as sexual objects. I don’t view them as sexual objects, or sexual partners. All I know is that I snapped, and the next thing I know is I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of my van, and my breathing is ragged, ragged. And I’m watching the sun come up -- watching it rise, getting brighter, getting brighter. And I look in the back seat and she’s dead. Dead. And I swear don’t know what the happened, I was so far gone I can tell you.”
Later, however, he concedes the official version of events.
“Could it have happened the way they said? Yes, it could have, it could have," Smith said. "Because rape is not a sex act, it's violence, it’s a violent act …Touching -- that’s sex. Rape, that’s not about sex, that’s about violence. And at that point, I was so psychotic, I was extremely violent. She had to go.”
Smith even remembers telling Cherish he had to kill her. Recounting episode to his mom, he points his finger, and says harshly, “You have to go.”
Smith has been evaluated by dozens of psychiatrists since his first sex offense in 1977. They all found him intelligent and manipulative. That tendency is on display when he tells his mom to buy him a copy of the DSM IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is essentially a textbook guide to mental illness. He needs it, he explains, so he can mimic one convincingly.
“I need to know how to act," he told his mom. "And I need to know what these other guys act like that – or whatever, so I can get what I need. It’ll save my life. This is about life and death.”
At times, Smith whispers, reminding his mom they are being recorded, or uses sign language.
His mother, Patricia Moore, is a sign language interpreter.
Smith often fixates on the media attention he’s getting, and how he stacks up against notorious criminals, including accused child killer Casey Anthony, convicted child rapist Jimmy Ryce and local serial killer Paul Durousseau.
“This is bigger, this is bigger than that, this is bigger than all of that," he said. "This has got every major component in the system. … Kidnapping, you have death and you have rape of a child. That is explosive material to the max.
“This is probably one of the most explosive cases that’s ever come out of Jacksonville," he added.
During his jail stay, Smith is confronted by inmates who recognize him. He’s acutely aware that his crime makes him a target – something he hopes a psychiatric defense can help him avoid.
“I can’t go to prison, I can’t go to prison. I can’t go to prison,” he repeats. “No way. My charges? They’ll stab me to death, beat me to death, they’ll rape me, I wouldn’t last a month. I’d be dead. So it’s either death row, or the hospital. There is no prison. I don’t want prison. Rather go to death row because I’m going to die anyway. Prison’s going to kill. At least death row: give me a shot and I’ll just, shoop, go to sleep. Happy and peaceful, safe.”
In the end, Smith presented no defense in his capital murder trial. Last February, a jury recommended death, and in May he was formally sentenced to death.
On Monday at 11 p.m., we examine decades of previously unreported missteps in the case, including red flags raised by Smith's own doctors about the danger he posed to children and the community and warnings that were ignored.
MAP: This interactive map shows Donald Smith's twisted footprint around the First Coast.