Westmoreland DA seeks killer's testimony against alleged accomplice in torture slaying

| Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, 1:24 p.m.

Death row inmate Melvin Knight refused to plead for his life during his two-week sentencing trial in August.

But now Knight, 23, wants to talk to jurors who will hear evidence against his alleged accomplice in the torture and slaying of Jennifer Daugherty, 30, of Mt. Pleasant.

Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said Tuesday he will call Knight as a witness against Ricky Smyrnes, 26, the alleged mastermind in the killing of the mentally challenged woman from Mt. Pleasant by six roommates in a Greensburg apartment.

“It was the defendant who contacted the District Attorney's Office and asked to talk to us,” Peck told Judge Al Bell.

Bell held an emergency hearing Tuesday morning, when Knight's attorney asked for a court order barring prosecutors from having any more contact with Knight.

Defense attorney Jeff Miller told Bell he had not talked to Knight, but found he spoke to detectives one week ago.

Peck confirmed in court that two county detectives traveled on Jan. 23 to the State Correctional Institution in Greene County, outside of Waynesburg, to meet with Knight.

He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in April and a jury condemned him to death by lethal injection in August.

Peck said Knight had an intermediary contact the prosecutor's office to set up the meeting.

Another meeting between Knight and prosecutors is in limbo.

Bell ordered that they have no contact with Knight until at least Wednesday and not until after he speaks with his lawyer. Miller was directed by the judge to travel to Greene County Tuesday to speak with his client.

Although Knight has never testified in the case, several defense witnesses have told jurors that Knight feared Smyrnes and bent to his will.

Both the prosecution and Knight's witnesses described Smyrnes as the man who orchestrated more than two days of torture against Daugherty and the man who ordered Knight to fatally stab the victim.

Knight inflicted the fatal wounds to Daugherty's heart with a steak knife, prosecution witnesses said. Then Knight and Smyrnes took her body, bound her with Christmas lights and garland, and dumped it into a garbage bin they dragged through the snow to the Greensburg Salem Middle School parking lot, where it was discovered on the morning of Feb. 11, 2010, according to testimony.

Knight's former fiancee, Amber Meidinger, has testified twice. She was the key witness against Knight and 20-year-old Angela Marinucci, who is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. Daugherty was targeted because she was vying with Marinucci for Smyrnes' affections, according to Meidinger.

Peck has filed notice he intends to seek the death penalty against Meidinger.

Witnesses said Smyrnes was the man who ordered the roommates to beat Daugherty and force her to drink concoctions of human waste and cleaning supplies.

They said Smyrnes called at least three “family meetings” to discuss killing Daugherty, who was forced to write her a fake suicide note.

Smyrnes' lawyers were alerted to Knight's potential testimony and have filed a court motion seeking access to reports of Knight's psychological evaluations used against him at trial.

The defense team has objected to a prosecution motion filed last week seeing to bar a diminished capacity defense.

The prosecution said that because Smyrnes told doctors he did not kill Daugherty he cannot seek to avoid a possible first-degree murder conviction and the death penalty by claiming to be retarded or suffering from mental disorders.

Defense attorney Terrance Faye wrote that evidence will reveal that Smyrnes inflicted nonfatal cut wounds to Daugherty's wrists. Smyrnes' actions did not contribute to her death, Faye said.

“Because there is no evidence that defendant, Ricky Smyrnes, actually stabbed the victim or caused any injury that caused death, the defendant is not required to admit that he killed the victim ...,” Faye wrote.

Smyrnes' jury was selected this month. Testimony before Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway is scheduled to begin Feb. 4.

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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