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Jury hands death sentence to Knight

| Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, 11:54 a.m.
A Westmoreland County Prison provided photo shows Melvin Knight, convicted in the 2010 torture-murder of a mentally challenged teenager.

Melvin Knight became the 203rd person sent to Pennsylvania's death row.

A Westmoreland County jury of six men and six women deliberated two hours Thursday before condemning Knight, 22, to death for the Feb. 11, 2010, torture-slaying of Jennifer Daugherty, 30, a mentally disabled woman.

Knight, formerly of Swissvale, showed no emotion as the jury announced it found the torture, assault and kidnapping of Daugherty were aggravating factors that warranted his receiving the death penalty.

Daugherty's family members said the sentence was justified.

“A little bit more justice was served today,” said Daugherty's mother, Denise Murphy. “We were happy with whatever the outcome would have been.”

District Attorney John Peck said the case against Knight — and the prosecutions of his five Greensburg roommates charged with holding Daugherty captive for more than two days, torturing her and eventually stabbing her to death — was one of the worst he has seen.

“This is a case with an aggravating circumstance of torture. I don't remember any case that had that as an aggravating circumstance in my 30 years in the district attorney's office,” Peck said.

Knight's defense team of Jeff Miller and Jim Geibig left the courthouse Thursday night without speaking with reporters.

They and Knight will return to court Friday morning, when Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway will formally pronounce the death sentence.

Knight becomes just the third person condemned to death in Westmoreland County since capital punishment was reinstated in Pennsylvania in the late 1970s.

In April, Knight pleaded guilty to charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, kidnapping and two counts of conspiracy.

During nine days of testimony the prosecution presented 23 witnesses and 137 exhibits in its case.

Prosecution witnesses said Knight and his Greensburg roommates beat the victim with a towel rack and a metal crutch, doused her with spices, and forced her to drink concoctions of urine, feces and cleaning supplies.

Knight then stabbed her to death when he plunged a steak knife into her heart three times, witnesses said.

Her body was bound with Christmas lights and holiday garland, stuffed into a trash can and left in the parking lot at Greensburg Salem Middle School.

To get the death penalty, the prosecution needed to prove that aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating factors the defense presented.

The jury found just one mitigating circumstance in Knight's favor, that he suffered from mental health issues.

Miller in his nearly hour-long closing argument told jurors that they have three reasons to keep Knight alive — his age, lack of a criminal history and that he was under duress and the substantial domination of co-defendant Ricky Smyrnes.

“The reasons for life are legitimate and real,” Miller said.

Miller told jurors that Knight's actions in killing Daugherty were indefensible, but argued there are enough factors in his background that would justify the jury's sparing his life.

The defense disputed allegations raised by Knight's former fiancee and the mother of his daughter, co-defendant Amber Meidinger, that Knight raped Daugherty during her more two days of captivity.

“It didn't happen. The commonwealth never charged Melvin Knight with rape. If it actually happened, why didn't they charge him with it?” Miller asked.

Defense witnesses said Knight has had significant mental health issues, including Attention Deficit Disorder, learning disabilities, paranoia and psychosis during his childhood.

Friends and family members described him as a nonviolent and nonaggressive man who is easily manipulated by stronger personalities.

But Peck, during his 55-minute closing argument, said Knight is the “worst of the worst” and deserved to die.

Peck told jurors that Knight committed “depraved, atrocious, cruel acts” and should be put to death for the murder.

“I ask you to do what the law requires, and that is, bring back the sentence of death. That is appropriate in the case of Melvin Knight,” Peck said

Knight briefly took the witness stand Thursday morning to say he did not wish to plead for his life.

He was questioned by Hathaway about his decision not to testify.

Knight said that after consulting with defense attorneys, he decided not to testify.

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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