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Gary Gerstenfield, Jenese Harris, and Rachel Stockman discuss the Donald Smith trial

Rachel:                And welcome back everybody to the Law & Crime Network. I’m your host for this afternoon, Rachel Stockman, and we were just listening to some testimony from the very, very beginning of the Donald Smith trial, of the mom of that young eight year old girl, testifying to what happened that day when her beautiful young daughter was snatched from a Walmart and later brutalized, and raped, and murdered.

Rachel:                Today was a very emotion packed day in court where we had a guilty verdict after just 15 minutes of deliberations in that case. I want to bring in now a reporter who was actually in the courtroom when this all happened today.

Rachel:                Jenese Harris, she’s with News4Jax, a local affiliate in the Jacksonville area. Jenese, are you there?

Jenese:               Yes I am here. Good afternoon.

Rachel:                Good afternoon. Thanks so much for joining. Tell me, what was that moment like when the verdict was read only 15 minutes of deliberations?

Jenese:               If you could imagine, it felt like the air left the room. So many people were anticipating that he would be found guilty of first degree murder, kidnapping, and also sexual battery of a child under the age of 12. But it was something about hearing the verdict read that he was guilty that really made it final for a lot of people in the room.

Jenese:               The jury sat there, very calm, as they had been for most of the case, with the exception of when they heard the testimony from Dr. Valerie Rao, the Medical Examiner, about the brutal experience that eight year old Cherish Perrywinkle had to go through as she was raped, as she was gagged, and as she was murdered.

Jenese:               That was the one time you saw a lot of emotion from the jury. But, for the rest of this trial, so far, the jury was very calm, and very attentive, very focused, and they were the same way when that verdict of guilty was read for those three charges.

Rachel:                Were you surprised Jenese, that it only took 15 minutes? I didn’t actually count it down to the minute, but I believe it was 15 minutes, right? For them to come back with a verdict.

Jenese:               Absolutely. It was about 15 minutes. I will say that I wasn’t necessarily surprised. The reason that I was not surprised at all was because the State presented a case, though I’m not an attorney, in my opinion I can at least say, the State presented a case where they went step by step from the moment that Donald Smith met the Perrywinkle family, which would be Rayne Perrywinkle, the mother, Cherish Perrywinkle, and her two sisters.

Jenese:               They moved from that moment through surveillance video and then showing surveillance video again when they get into his white van. Then, when they go to the Walmart they show where the Perrywinkle family gets out, goes into the Walmart and then they show where Donald Smith walks into that Walmart and he stays with the family for an extended period of time. Then shows the surveillance video where he’s walking out of the door with Cherish Perrywinkle, and that’s the last time that anyone would see her alive.

Jenese:               The State also presents the evidence of showing the van with Donald Smith and Cherish Perrywinkle inside, also his bizarre interaction with witnesses who he shouts out to saying, “We’re going to get cheeseburgers,” before he takes off in that van with Cherish Perrywinkle.

Jenese:               Something very interesting that the State also presented, they said that while Donald Smith was in the Walmart with the Perrywinkle family, he picked up one thing and put it in the cart, and they had a photo of that evidence. It was rope that he actually never purchased, but he put it in that cart.

Jenese:               The State was very detailed in talking about everything leading up to the moments where they met, once they met, and then also showing the DNA evidence to prove, to put Donald Smith as the person who raped, murdered, Cherish Perrywinkle.

Rachel:                Okay. So I gotta ask you Jenese, and then I’m gonna bring in another legal analyst that’s standing by with us. But I gotta ask you because a lot of people have really not liked the Defense’s strategy. They didn’t have much of a strategy throughout the case, but for the opening statements, when they really tried to blame the mother for some of this. Basically saying she made some bad decisions and put her child at risk.

Rachel:                What was the perception in the community of the Defense Attorney doing that? And, do you think that changed her strategy going forward in that she decided not to do a closing? In that she decided not to cross examine the mother. In that she decided not to put forward any defense witnesses.

Jenese:               Well first, historically, to be fair and full disclosure, I was not here when the arrest was originally made. However, I will say, from doing research and previous reports from 2013 up to the point since I’ve been here in 2016, the community has been split in the sense that some people were upset, “How could you let your child go away with Donald Smith?” But at the same time people have been saying, “We want justice. The man is guilty. We want him to get the death penalty.” So, the community has been empathetic more than anything else towards Rayne Perrywinkle.

Jenese:               As you mentioned, the Defense, they decided in their opening arguments, to some extent, put blame on Rayne Perrywinkle. However, they did not cross examine her and from what we understand in court, that was also the request of Donald Smith. He stood up and said to the Judge, I don’t want her to have to go through anything she does not want to go through.

Rachel:                And I want to bring in Gary Gerstenfield into our discussion. He’s a Criminal Defense Attorney. Thinking of it from the criminal defense attorney view, do you think that shaped her strategy moving forward? In that she got some blow-back from basically trying to victim blame in her openings, the attorney of Donald Smith, that is. Do you think that steered the course of the trial? Or, do you think that she always had in mind that she was not really gonna cross examine any of the witnesses? Not gonna bring forth any defense witnesses, and not give a closing.

Gary:                   Well, Jenese makes a good point, and that is that perhaps, at some point during this trial, maybe after the opening, maybe after the testimony of the mom, that Mr. Smith directed his attorney not to cross examine or put on much of a defense … put on any defense. That’s an interesting point, and that’s very rare.

Gary:                   Typically, what happens in a case is the attorney mounts the defense and has to do his job, and sometimes … or her job, and sometimes you try to do what your client wants you to do in terms of letting the client make big decisions. But in terms of strategy, in terms of how you defend somebody, that’s your job.

Gary:                   A doctor listens to the patient, but at the end of the day, the doctor’s gonna make the call that the doctor believes is appropriate. And the same thing with a Defense Attorney. You can’t just sit there and say, “Well gee, do you think I should cross examine this witness? What do you think? That would of sound pretty good, maybe we should not ask any questions. No.”

Gary:                   Do I think that the opening statement was a smart move? Typically, in a case where you know you have compelling evidence and you know that you’ve got an uphill track, coming on strong in your opening statement sometimes is not a good idea. You sometimes want to just remind the jury their job, their role, remind them about what a standard proof is, and remind them of the fact that they have all taken an oath to find your client, at this point, not guilty, until such time as they had a chance to deliberate, fully consider the evidence, and understand that the burden always rests with the Prosecutor and not the Defense.

Gary:                   Coming on-

Rachel:                And Jenese, I want to get into the mind a little bit of Donald Smith here because, we were watching this on a stream and we were able to see his reaction from time to time when the camera pointed directly at his face.

Jenese:               Yes.

Rachel:                But I’m curious about how … what was his demeanor through this trial? To me it kind of seemed like he was enjoying the limelight here?

Jenese:               Well it’d be hard for me to say what he was thinking because, you know, I’m not a psychologist and I can’t necessarily be in his mind. But I can tell you, one of the things that I actually reported on yesterday, an observation. Remember that his Defense Attornies did not do a cross examination. And then remember also, today, they decided to not do closing arguments. But the one thing that we did actively see from him, in court yesterday, he would wink at the courtroom cameras. He stopped-

Rachel:                Wait, stop, Jenese, stop, did you just say he would wink at the courtroom camera?

Jenese:               He winked. He winked at a courtroom camera yesterday. It was a part of my report yesterday. We were all very surprised by it.

Rachel:                Like in a flirtatious way? Like, what exactly … just kind of like, “Hey I see-

Jenese:               It’s hard to say, but he winked. He talked to one of his attorneys, specifically, Charles Fletcher, he said something to him briefly, and then he looked over and he winked. Also, you have the photo up right now that happened at the end of yesterday in court where everyone was standing up to, essentially, leave. We were getting ready to walk out of court and you can hear him asking of one of his attorneys, “Can I take a photo?” His attorney nods as if saying yes, he turns around, and he literally stops and he posed for the courtroom still camera, the photographer.

Rachel:                And we have that picture. There it is right there.

Jenese:               That’s when he took that photo. That photo.

Rachel:                Wow. Unbelievable. This is-

Jenese:               So, we can’t get in his mind, but it seemed to be very bizarre behavior when you’re facing the death penalty.

Rachel:                Yeah. Very, very bizarre behavior. That’s what leads me to believe, and Gary, I want you to weigh in on this. That he took this to trial because, clearly, there was no question as to his guilt. He took this to trial, not so much to avoid the death penalty, but because maybe he enjoyed the media circus of this. Why else would this guy be winking, as Jenese just told us, and posing for a pool photographer?

Gary:                   Well, again, you’re trying to get in the mind of a sociopath. But I tell ya, of equal merit to that, does this guy look particularly nervous during this trial? Does he look like he’s at a cookout? I mean, this is a guy facing the death penalty and he’s got … he’s sitting back, he’s got the glasses on his head. I mean, this guy does not look particularly worried and it’s hard to imagine what any of us would be acting like or be behaving like. But, his behavior certainly isn’t the one that would expect for somebody facing something quite as serious as the death penalty.

Rachel:                Jenese, tell me a little bit about who was in the courtroom. Were some of Cherish’s family members there? Did the mother, after she testified the first day, did she sit throughout the trial? I don’t know. Sometimes Judges don’t allow witnesses to watch the rest. But if they’re family members sometimes they do. Who was there in the courtroom? In the gallery.

Jenese:               Rayne Perrywinkle was in court today, to hear the verdict. As you mentioned, she was in court when she testified, but she was not in court … excuse me, as someone’s trying to get in touch with me … she was in court for any other testimony, but she was back in court today during the trial.

Jenese:               Also, you might recall a completely separate case, the Jordan Davis case. He was murdered while playing his music loud in a gas station parking lot on the South Side of Jacksonville, Florida, here. His father was in court, Mr. Davis, and he talked about how he has been supportive of Rayne Perrywinkle over the years. He and his wife. That this has been a very difficult time for Rayne, but that it was important for him.

Jenese:               Ironically, his case, the man who killed his son, was found guilty in that same courtroom.

Rachel:                Wow.

Jenese:               He said it was very ironic for him to be back in that courtroom, 406, in Duval County Courthouse, but he was happy to be there to be supportive of Rayne Perrywinkle.

Rachel:                And it’s such a tragedy for this family, this little girl, taken so young, in such the beginning of her life really.

Rachel:                Last question for you Jenese, I know you have to get going with your work of the day. But, tell me, did the mother have any reaction after court to the guilty verdict?

Jenese:               She was very emotional. We wanted to talk to her but we have been told from two sources that she has decided she’s not going to talk until the penalty phase. Remember, the penalty phase is next week. The jury still has to decide, 12 to zero, for him to receive the death penalty.

Rachel:                Well, Jenese Harris, thank you so much for joining us and giving us some real insight into what was going on in court. Jenese is a local reporter for News4Jax, WJXT, if you want to catch her live in the Jacksonville area. Thanks so much for joining us again.

Rachel:                And Gary, you as well, Gary Gerstenfield, a Criminal Defense Attorney was with us this hour weighing in on some of this. I certainly hope you join us again Gary.

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