Judge nixes gag order in grisly Greensburg murder case

| Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010

Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway refused yesterday to issue a gag order in the case of six suspects accused of torturing and killing a mentally challenged Greensburg woman.

Hathaway rejected a request from defense attorney Jeffrey Miller, who asked the judge to issue an order to prevent participants from publicly speaking about the case outside the courtroom.

Miller said his client, Melvin Knight, has been prejudiced because other lawyers in the case have been too outspoken in the news media.

"It benefits both sides in obtaining a fair trial," Miller told the judge during a conference yesterday.

Knight, 20; Ricky Smyrnes, 24; Amber Meidinger, 20; Peggy Miller, 27; Robert Loren Masters, 36; and Angela Marinucci, 18, are charged with first-degree murder and other offenses in the slaying of 30-year-old Jennifer Daugherty in a Greensburg apartment they shared.

Police contend that the six defendants tortured Daugherty for more than two days when they held her captive, assaulted her, shaved her head, and forced her to drink cleaning products and bodily fluids. Daugherty's body, tied up with Christmas lights, was stuffed into a trash can and left in the parking lot at Greensburg Salem Middle School, where it was found Feb. 11.

District Attorney John Peck is seeking the death penalty against Knight, Smyrnes and Meidinger.

Hathaway, who must sort out the logistics of trying six suspects for the murder, ruled that a gag order is not necessary.

"I don't see why counsel would want to try the case in the media," she said.

All six suspects appeared in court, where Hathaway outlined the upcoming schedule in the case.

Defense motions must be filed by Oct. 13. Three days of testimony to hear those issues will be held on Oct. 29, Nov. 1 and Nov. 2.

At least one issue that might be addressed is new evidence. Peck notified defense lawyers that Westmoreland County Prison inmates have reported hearing additional confessions about the murder from some of the suspects.

Hathaway must rule on requests to have the suspects tried separately and for jurors to be selected in another county because of pretrial publicity.

David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and former criminal defense attorney, said the motion for separate trials is unlikely to be granted.

"It makes sense from the point of view of efficiency, and having the witnesses go through the rigors of testimony only once," he said.

That will make things more complicated for the defense attorneys, Harris said.

"What you're going to do if you're only one defendant is to shift the blame onto the others," he said. "It's everybody punching each other out, and the prosecution can sit back."

About 10 years ago, Judge John Blahovec attempted to try six defendants at the same time in a drug-related killing in Bell Township. That became too unwieldy during jury selection and the suspects were tried in two separate trials.

Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said it makes sense for the defense in the Daugherty case to ask for a change of venue, but he added that it is unlikely Hathaway would grant the motion before attempting to select a jury.

"It's an unusual amount of publicity," he said, "but you would be surprised how many people will not have heard of it."

Still, he said, the grisly facts of the case will make finding an impartial jury more difficult. "If they've heard anything, it's going to be bad," he said.

Four suspects have filed pretrial motions. Last week, Meidinger's defense team asked that prosecutors be barred from seeking the death penalty against her. Meidinger is due to give birth this month.

Defense lawyers Emily Smarto and Amy Keim said the Constitution bars the death penalty in cases where a defendant is not accused of actively participating in a murder.

"A non-murdering participant in a felony murder may not be subject to the death penalty unless he played a major role in the murder and acted with extreme disregard for human life," the defense team said in its motion.

In addition, they contend, Meidinger suffers from mental retardation and other mental infirmities, making her exempt from capital punishment.

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