Donald James Smith: The Murderer Who Went Undetected in Plain View
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
When Donald Smith was released from the Duval County Pretrial Detention Facility on May 31 after completing a one-year sentence reached in a plea deal in a case in which he had impersonated a Department of Children and Families employee in an effort to gain access to a young child, he walked out the door unsupervised despite a nearly 40-year history of offenses that demonstrated a propensity toward sexual violence against prepubescent girls. During those 40 years, he was committed to both state and private mental hospitals for treatment. He was a registered sex offender. He lived with his mother at the age of 56 (an indicator of his inability to function on his own). He even drove a van, a common choice of vehicle for sexual homicide offenders and rapists: it gives one a private place to carry out his fantasy. Yet, somehow, our system did not detect the threat he posed to the unfortunate little girl who caught his eye.
We must understand something important about Smith’s motivation: he did not set out to sexually abuse Cherish Perrywinkle, deciding then to kill her out of some perceived utilitarian need to conceal his crimes. In fact, Smith had befriended Cherish’s mother using his real first name, and he had brazenly abducted the girl from a store that he had to know was filled with video surveillance and potential witnesses to his identity. Yet, he didn’t care about that.
In the world of sexually violent offenders, two aspects of their crimes are important: modus operandi and signature. Modus operandi, more commonly known acronymically as “M.O.”, consists of those events and actions the offender chooses for utilitarian purposes: to make committing the offense and escaping detection more expedient. Signature, on the other hand, consists of those actions the offender must take to fulfill his fantasy in some way, to provide him the satisfaction he needs. Modus operandi can vary from offense to offense, as it did in Smith’s case, but signature is, for the offender, a necessary part of the crime.
Killing Cherish did not serve Smith’s modus operandi; it served his signature. He didn’t kidnap her to rape or molest her; he kidnapped her to kill her, and it is likely that his prior failed attempts at abducting young girls were likewise motivated.
Yet, somehow, our system let him back out on the street, again and again.
The failure of the system in this case may relate to limitations in our habitual felony offender and Jimmy Ryce statutes. It may relate to a number of other burdensome problems within the criminal justice system. But it clearly relates to a colossal failure of intelligence within the system charged with protecting young children like Cherish Perrywinkle. How could the State Attorney’s Office not detect from Smith’s past that he was clearly a danger to children? Why would they agree to a plea arrangement that would let him walk out of jail after serving only one year for attempting to get his hands on a young child? Given his history of mental health commitment, why did they not negotiate a voluntary mental health commitment as part of the plea agreement? These questions will need to be answered as the investigation into this case moves forward, for the sake of Cherish and the next child who catches the eye of someone like Donald Smith.