Defense says Westmoreland torture slaying defendant was easily manipulated
By Rich Cholodofsky
Published: Monday, August 20, 2012, 12:04 p.m.
Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
A horrific childhood, fraught with mental illness, led Melvin Knight to the Greensburg apartment where a mentally challenged woman was tortured and killed, a defense attorney told jurors on Monday.
Defense lawyer Jim Geibig told a Westmoreland County jury that Knight's life should be spared.
“Consider the totality of the circumstances. You'll see that while Melvin should be held accountable, he should be held accountable with a life sentence,” Geibig said.
Knight, 22, formerly of Swissvale, pleaded guilty in April to first-degree murder for the Feb. 11, 2010, stabbing death of Jennifer Daugherty, 30, of Mt. Pleasant.
Prosecutors want the jury to condemn Knight to death by lethal injection.
District Attorney John Peck told jurors the death penalty is warranted against Knight, describing his actions as “depraved,” “atrocious,” “cruel” and “shockingly evil.”
“Some murders are worse than others, and this is one of those. Some defendants are worse than others, and Melvin Knight is one of them,” Peck said.
During the first day of testimony in Knight's penalty-phase trial, jurors viewed nearly two dozen autopsy photographs of Daugherty's abused body. It was stuffed head-first into a 45-gallon plastic garbage can and left under a parked truck at Greensburg Salem Middle School on Main Street in the city.
Former Westmoreland County Detective Adam Jack described the grisly pictures. They showed Daugherty's body cradled in a fetal position, her hands tied with Christmas lights and pajamas, and her feet bound with holiday garland. Her hands clutched a kitchen towel.
Daugherty's bruised face was covered in red nail polish.
Investigators found about 50 blue Christmas light bulbs in the North Pennsylvania Avenue apartment Knight briefly shared with five roommates who also were charged in the killing.
“The place was in disarray,” Jack testified.
During more than two days of captivity, Daugherty was tortured and forced to drink concoctions of human waste, spices and cleaning supplies, police said.
Jack found Daugherty's state Access card, used for food stamps, under soap powder in a detergent carton. It was slashed into pieces. Empty pill capsules and a pot of yellow liquid with an odor of urine were found in the kitchen, Jack testified.
Police found a cut-up “suicide note” investigators contend the group forced Daugherty to wrote.
“I haven't been very happy for a while. I feel everybody will be better without me on the earth,” according to the note that Jack read to jurors. “I'm done with my life. Goodbye, Jennifer.”
The victim was beaten, raped and finally stabbed seven times, Jack said.
During a 45-minute opening statement, Geibig said Knight was easily manipulated. He told jurors a story about Knight as a teenage patient at Western Psychiatric Institute in Pittsburgh who was convinced by a group of 10-year-olds to steal them chocolate milk.
Ricky Smyrnes, 26, another man charged with Daugherty's murder, preyed upon Knight's vulnerability, Geibig said.
Knight ended up in Greensburg after being homeless for 18 months. He met codefendant Amber Meidinger while staying in a Washington County shelter. Meidinger eventually became pregnant with his child.
“The weight of the world came down on Melvin,” Geibig said.
Knight and Meidinger made their way to Greensburg where they met up with Smyrnes and the others in the group.
Smyrnes inflamed the group after telling the others, including his 17-year-old girlfriend, Angela Marinucci, that Daugherty wanted to become intimate with Smyrnes during their first night together in the apartment.
“Ricky decided to start some drama,” Geibig said.
Marinucci last year was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life sentence in prison.
Peck will seek the death penalty against Smyrnes and Meidinger when they go to trial.
Geibig told jurors they should spare Knight's life because of a variety of mitigating circumstances.
Knight was born to a single mother and a father who was in prison and later abused him, Geibig said. He was in and out of mental institutions throughout his childhood and was diagnosed with 11 mental disorders, including psychosis, bipolar disorder, paranoia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“Melvin got sucked into the group,” Geibig said.
The penalty phase trial will continue this morning before Judge Rita Hathaway.
Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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