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Trial opens for suspect in Greensburg torture slaying

| Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, 11:40 a.m.
Tribune-Review
A Westmoreland County jury has decided that Ricky Smyrnes should be put to death for the torture murder of a mentally challenged woman. File photo
Sean Stipp
Ricky Smyrnes, the alleged ringleader of the the group of six charged with torturing and killing Jennifer Daugherty, a mentally challenged woman, in a Greensburg apartment, arrives at the Westmoreland County Courthouse for a hearing on September 28, 2012.

A Westmoreland County jury heard nothing Monday about the alleged intellectual limitations of the man accused of goading his five roommates into torturing and killing a Mt. Pleasant woman who was mentally challenged.

Judge Rita Hathaway prohibited defense lawyers for Ricky Smyrnes to tell jurors in an opening statement that he suffered from diminished mental capacity during the stabbing death of Jennifer Daugherty, 30, almost two years ago.

Smyrnes, 26, formerly of Irwin and McKeesport, is accused of leading the group as they tortured Daugherty for more than two days and then murdered her in a Greensburg apartment they shared.

Testimony started Monday in District Attorney John Peck's quest to have Smyrnes sentenced to death if he is found guilty of first-degree murder.

Before the trial began, Hathaway heard arguments on whether jurors should hear evidence about Smyrnes' mental capacity.

Defense attorney Michael DeRiso contends Smyrnes has low intelligence and suffers from a multiple personality disorder.

Peck argued that Smyrnes told a psychologist he did not kill Daugherty, making a diminished capacity defense inadmissible.

Hathaway ruled DeRiso could not mention the issue during the opening statement. She will rule later on whether the defense can introduce that evidence.

DeRiso said in a brisk, 15-minute statement that the others terrorized Daugherty at their own initiative and it was Melvin Knight who plunged a knife four times into Daugherty's heart.

“This is not a whodunit. It's whodunit to what degree,” DeRiso said.

Peck told jurors that Smyrnes orchestrated hours of torture against Daugherty.

Smyrnes presided over three ”family meetings” he called for the group to discuss Daugherty's fate. Peck said Smyrnes ordered Daugherty to write a suicide note after forcing her to ingest medication in an “ingenious” plan.

“The defendant was wise enough to always have somebody else do his dirty work,” Peck said. “He wasn't going to have blood on his hands. Ultimately, he relied on Melvin Knight to do his dirty work.”

DeRiso said it was ridiculous to consider Smyrnes a leader. In court, he wore a blue, button-down dress shirt, and had his shoulder-length hair slicked back.

“We don't agree this man over here somehow got together the six of these people and started playing puppetmaster,” DeRiso said.

DeRiso conceded that Smyrnes helped to hold Daugherty captive and to dispose of her body.

Prosecutors allege that the group's ill will against Daugherty was ignited by Smyrnes' girlfriend, Angela Marinucci, 20, who perceived Daugherty as a romantic threat.

Roommate Amber Meidinger, 22, testified against Marinucci, who is imprisoned for life.

Meidinger also testified against Knight, who fathered the daughter she gave birth to while being held in the Westmoreland County Prison.

Knight pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to death by lethal injection.

Peck will seek the death penalty against Meidinger, who testified she had no plea deal. Still awaiting trial are Peggy Miller, 30, and Robert Masters Jr., 39.

Daniel Grant of Greensburg testified he found a plastic trash can containing Daugherty's body under his service truck, which was parked outside Greensburg Salem Middle School, on Feb. 11, 2010.

Rebecca Clark testified that as she drove to work shortly before dawn that morning she saw two men on Main Street dragging a trash can near the school.

Testimony will resume Tuesday morning. One female juror was dismissed Monday for personal reasons and was replaced by an alternate.

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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