I was jolted awake this morning shortly before 5 a.m. by the squawk of the emergency broadcast system on the television. An Amber alert relayed the news that an eight-year-old Jacksonville girl, Charish Perriwinkle, had disappeared from a Walmart on the city's north side at 11 p.m. Friday night. Police feared she was in the company of a registered sex offender, Donald James Smith.
For hours, the local station provided updates as I half-slept. Around 9:30 a.m., police said the sex offender was caught in his van on Interstate 95 near the Interstate 10 exchange, but the girl wasn't with him. An hour later, the terrible news was reported that her body was found at a church 10 minutes' drive from the store. The cop making the announcement to the media kept pausing to fight back his emotions as he relayed the news.
In the 16 years I've lived in the Jacksonville area, there have been three of these tragedies that happened to girls around the same age. Somer Thompson, 7, was abducted during her walk home from school in Orange Park in 2009, attacked and killed by a 24-year-old neighbor. Maddie Clifton, 8, disappeared from her Lakewood home in 1998 and her body was found a week later in the waterbed of her 14-year-old, next-door neighbor.
I'd like to be an unequivocal opponent of the death penalty, because I believe it's a barbaric punishment that is administered with racial bias, takes too long in the courts, costs too much and occasionally results in the execution of an innocent person -- an outcome no one should be able to abide. But crimes like the one today make it extremely difficult to hold to this belief. Any man who could abduct, rape and murder a child is going to be a monster until he takes his last breath.
The photo accompanying this blog is a Google Street View of Smith's residence. There's a man watering the plants with his approximate build outside the nicely tended house, his face blurred by Google's privacy algorithm. From one angle, the man appears to be watching a child ride past on a bicycle.