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Judge won't allow defense to discuss Smyrnes' mental status

| Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, 12:39 p.m.
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

Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway will not allow the defense team for accused killer Ricky Smyrnes to tell jurors that he is mentally disabled, she told lawyers on Friday.

Hathaway will issue a formal order on Monday.

Prosecutors want the jury to find Smyrnes, 26, guilty of first-degree murder in the torture slaying of Jennifer Daugherty, 30, a mentally challenged woman from Mt. Pleasant.

If they are successful, prosecutors then will ask the panel to sentence Smyrnes to death.

Defense attorneys Mike DeRiso and Terrance Faye wanted to present evidence at trial that Smyrnes is so mentally deficient, he could not fully form the intent to kill, a necessary element for first-degree murder. They planned to call a psychiatrist to testify abut Smyrnes' mental ability.

But the judge said the defense cannot call an expert witness about Smyrnes' intelligence level unless the trial enters the penalty phase, when Smyrnes' mental capacity could be used as a mitigating factor to spare him from death by lethal injection.

Smyrnes, formerly of Irwin and McKeesport, is accused of calling the shots as he and five roommates in a Greensburg apartment held Daugherty captive, tortured her for more than two days and then killed her.

Smyrnes convened a series of “family meetings” to orchestrate the torture and fatal stabbing of Daugherty, whose body was discovered on Feb. 11, 2010, in a trash can on Main Street in Greensburg.

On Friday, DeRiso attempted to discredit Amber Meidinger, one of those roommates and the prosecution's key witness against Smyrnes.

Meidinger, 23, of Greensburg was the only witness to testify on Friday.

Through cross-examination, DeRiso sought to establish that Meidinger's former boyfriend, Melvin Knight, and Smyrnes' girlfriend, Angela Marinucci, were responsible for Daugherty's torture and slaying.

“Melvin was only following orders. He did it because Ricky wanted him to,” Meidinger insisted.

Knight, 23, formerly of Swissvale, was sentenced to death in August. Marinucci, 20, formerly of Greensburg, has been imprisoned for life.

Meidinger was repeatedly questioned about inconsistencies in her testimony against Smyrnes and what she told jurors in two previous trials for Knight and Marinucci.

Silence dominated the courtroom on Friday as Meidinger labored to answer questions and read large portions of transcripts of her previous testimony.

Meidinger fought back when confronted with a suggestion by DeRiso that she previously testified that Smyrnes was not involved in “family meetings” called to determine Daugherty's fate.

“At that point, I maybe didn't remember. It doesn't mean it didn't happen,” Meidinger testified.

Meidinger previously told jurors that Smyrnes led the group as they beat Daugherty, tied her up, choked her, stole her money, cut her hair, dumped spices on her head and forced her to drink concoctions of cleaning fluids, bodily excretions and prescription medications.

The witness said Knight raped Daugherty and stabbed her. Meidinger said Smyrnes cut the victim's wrist as the two men tried to kill her. She said Smyrnes told Knight to get a string of Christmas lights to choke Daugherty. The men dumped her body into a trash can and dragged it away from the apartment, Meidinger testified.

Knight and Meidinger have a daughter who was born after their arrests.

DeRiso's cross-examination of Meidinger could be the heart of the defense.

Hathaway sided with District Attorney John Peck, who contended the psychiatric testimony should be barred because Smyrnes cannot claim he was not responsible for the killing and then assert he was not mentally competent.

Smyrnes told his psychiatrist that he did not kill Daugherty, according to court records.

Meidinger is expected to continue her testimony on Monday when she is questioned again by prosecutors.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He canbe reached at 724-830-6293 or

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