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Experts disagree on convicted Greensburg killer's intelligence

Rich Cholodofsky
| Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, 12:36 p.m.

A nationally renowned forensic psychologist, who was involved in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that banned the death penalty for mentally deficient defendants, testified on Tuesday that Ricky Smyrnes is not mentally challenged.

Dr. Leigh D. Hagan of Chesterfield, Va., was called as an expert witness by Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck as he seeks a death sentence against Smyrnes, 26, in the torture slaying of Jennifer Daugherty, 30, of Mt. Pleasant.

Hagan told jurors that Smyrnes' scores on intelligence tests place him in the low end of the average range.

“It's my opinion that his IQ scores of record do not satisfy that prong” of a three-part standard to diagnose Smyrnes as mentally challenged, Hagan told jurors during the fourth day of Smyrnes' penalty trial.

The jury earlier this month convicted Smyrnes of first-degree murder, kidnapping and conspiracy for being the catalyst that incited his five Greensburg roommates as they held Daugherty captive for more than two days, beat her and fatally stabbed her in the heart.

The defense contends Smyrnes' intelligence is too low for him to be sentenced to death. They are seeking to convince jurors that his life should be spared because he has a childhood history of sexual, physical and emotional abuse and he suffers from various forms of mental illness.

Hagan was one of two prosecution witnesses to testify Tuesday that Smyrnes' intelligence does not qualify him to be diagnosed as mentally challengedt.

Hagan and Dr. Bruce Wright, the psychology department chairman at St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon, told jurors that Smyrnes scored 81 on two IQ scores when he was an 8-year-old. “You can't fake good,” Hagan testified.

Hagan told jurors he was hired as an expert in the Virginia murder case of Daryl Atkins, in which he was initially sentenced to death.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 2002 ruling that stemmed from the Atkins case, found that defendants with an IQ below 70 are considered mentally challenged and ineligible for the death penalty because that would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Smyrnes' defense team contends that his IQ meets the Supreme Court definition of mental retardation because a number of his intelligence test scores fall below 75.

Dr. Alice Applegate, the defense's mental health expert, testified that if an IQ falls in the range of 70-75, that person is “mildly mentally retarded.”

Smyrnes has several scores below 70, including a 60 on a test taken last year, she testified.

Hagan and Wright took the witness stand Tuesday to rebut the testimony from Applegate, a forensic psychologist with a private practice in Allison Park.

The prosecution experts contend that only IQ scores on tests Smyrnes took before age 18 are relevant in determining whether he can be diagnosed as mentally ill.

“His claim that he was mentally retarded first appeared after he was incarcerated for this event,” Wright told jurors.

Wright said mental health evaluations of Smyrnes, conducted when he was between the ages of 4 and 19 at various treatment facilities and schools, never identified him as mentally challenged.

Applegate, under questioning from Peck, testified that Smyrnes is “mildly mentally retarded” and suffers from multiple personality disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses.

She testified that Smyrnes' IQ tests, taken after he was 18, are a more valid measure of his abilities.

But she conceded that much of Smyrnes' personal family history is based on his own reports and not documented in other official records. Smyrnes told her he was born to a Philadelphia prostitute and a Pittsburgh gang leader before he was adopted by the Smyrnes family of North Huntingdon at age 10. He claimed he was sexually, emotionally and physically abused.

Peck has entered evidence of Smyrnes' violent past, including a former classmate who testified she was raped by Smyrnes when he was 11.

The defense will continue its case this morning before Judge Rita Hathaway.

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

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