Westmoreland killer's lawyers say jury never sworn in

Melvin Knight is escorted from the  Westmoreland County Courthouse on Aug. 31, 2012 after being sentenced to death for the murder of Jennifer Daugherty.
Melvin Knight is escorted from the Westmoreland County Courthouse on Aug. 31, 2012 after being sentenced to death for the murder of Jennifer Daugherty.
Photo by Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
| Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Defense attorneys for a former Swissvale man condemned to death last month contend he is entitled to a new trial because jurors were never officially sworn in before the start of the case against Melvin Knight in the murder of a mentally challenged woman.

The jury issue was the first of several points raised by lawyers for Knight, who contend that he was improperly sentenced to death for the Feb. 11, 2010, torture slaying of Jennifer Daugherty, 30.

“Where the jury has not been sworn, any verdict must be vacated and the defendant is unable to waive this violation,” defense attorneys Jeffrey Miller and Jim Geibig wrote.

The appeal cited similar criminal murder cases from 1935 and 1958. The current death penalty statute was instituted in 1978.

According to court documents filed on Monday, court staff and Judge Rita Hathaway became concerned about the jury issue shortly after Knight was formally sentenced on Aug. 31 to death by lethal injection.

On Aug. 30, the jury had deliberated two hours on Knight's sentence, issuing a ruling after nearly two weeks of testimony. In April, Knight had pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and other offenses.

On the following morning, after reading a formal court order that condemned Knight to death, Hathaway held a closed-door hearing in which Greensburg Detective Jerry Vernail and an intern with the District Attorney's Office testified they recalled the jury being sworn in.

District Attorney John Peck on Monday said he too remembered jurors taking an oath.

But he confirmed that a transcript — the official record of the trial — for the first day of the trial does not contain any mention of jurors being sworn in.

“In my mind the jury was sworn in,” Peck said.

Wes Oliver, a professor at Duquesne University's School of Law, said if it is determined no oath was administered to the jury, the only remedy in the case is a new trial.

Oliver said federal and state courts around the country have ruled differently on this issue.

“The last time the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered an issue like this a new trial had to be granted,” Oliver said.

In 2008 a Maryland state court reversed a conviction because of a similar trial issue.

Jurors are typically sworn in before attorneys make opening statements to begin the trial.

In addition, the defense contends that Knight is entitled to a new sentencing trial, claiming that jurors heard improper evidence of his jail record and that the case should have been moved from Westmoreland County at the outset.

In their appeal, Miller and Geibig contend that the verdict was tainted because Knight's right to due process was violated because of jurors' knowledge of the case and the revelation from one juror who disclosed he read media accounts of the trial and discussed them with another panelist. The defense also said Hathaway improperly allowed jurors to view grisly autopsy photographs.

Those pictures depicted Daugherty's badly beaten and stabbed body after she was found with her hands and legs bound with Christmas lights and garland, and stuffed into a trash can.

Prosecutors contended that Knight and his five Greensburg roommates held Daugherty hostage for more than two days, when they beat and tortured her and fatally stabbed her as many as seven times, including three fatal blows to the heart.

A capital murder trial for one of Knight's codefendants, Ricky Smyrnes, 26, is slated to begin next month. Last year, jurors sentenced 20-year-old Angela Marinucci to first-degree murder. She was sentenced to life in prison.

Knight's former fiance, Amber Meidinger, 22, is awaiting her capital murder trial. She has testified against Knight and Marinucci.

Peggy Miller, 29, and Robert Masters, 38, have cooperated with investigators. No trial dates have been set for them.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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