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Jury sentences Smyrnes to death

Rich Cholodofsky
| Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, 1:54 p.m.
Ricky Smyrnes sat in the back of a sheriff's car after being sentenced to death by a Westmoreland County jury on Thursday, February 28, 2013.
Ricky Smyrnes sat in the back of a sheriff's car after being sentenced to death by a Westmoreland County jury on Thursday, February 28, 2013.

A jury on Thursday decided that Ricky Smyrnes should die for the torture murder of a mentally challenged woman in a Greensburg apartment three years ago.

The jury reached the verdict in the trial before Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway at 7:45 p.m., after nearly four hours of deliberations.

Smyrnes showed no emotion as the verdict was read.

Hathaway will formally sentence him at 1:30 p.m. Friday.

District Attorney John Peck told the jury Smyrnes, 26, led a pack of six roommates as they tortured Jennifer Daugherty, 30, of Mt. Pleasant for more than two days before she was fatally stabbed in February 2010.

Smyrnes “created an enormous amount of sadness,” Peck said.

Defense attorney Terrance Faye criticized the jurors' verdict. “I think they got it wrong,” she said.

Jurors were ushered from the courthouse, at their request, to avoid commenting to the press, according to court personnel.

Faye said she is confident the verdict will be overturned on appeal. She said the torture of Daugherty should not have been considered as an aggravating circumstance to warrant the death penalty because Smyrnes did not actually commit the murder.

The jurors cited the torture and Smyrnes' criminal history as aggravating circumstances justifying their verdict,

They ruled that the mitigating factors of Smyrnes' mental illness and the physical and sexual abuse he suffered as a child did not justify a sentence of life imprisonment.

“Jennifer had a voice today,” said Denise Murphy, the victim's mother. “This (Smyrnes) is the one she knew the best. He was supposed to be in love with her, but he didn't help her.”

Joy Burkholder, the victim's sister, said, “Life. Death. It doesn't make any difference to me. They'll probably die of natural causes anyway.”

In his closing argument, Peck cited the torture suffered by Daugherty, who was beaten and forced to drink bodily fluids, cleaners and prescription drugs.

Her attackers dumped nail polish on her head, cut off chunks of her hair and stole items from her purse, according to testimony in the six-week trial. Jurors last month convicted Smyrnes of first-degree murder.

On Thursday, the jury of eight men and four women first deliberated for 90 minutes to determine Smyrnes did not fall under the legal definition of “mentally retarded.” Defense attorneys unsuccessfully attempted to prove his life should be spared because he met an exemption defined by the Supreme Court in a landmark case out of Virginia.

Faye asked jurors to sentence Smyrnes to life in prison.

“You don't have to kill him because the six of them killed Jennifer. Ricky needs to be locked away,” Faye told jurors. “He needs to find forgiveness, redemption and salvation. If you kill him, he's not going to have that opportunity.”

A defense psychologist testified Smyrnes was born to a Philadelphia prostitute who sold him for sex. His father was a member of the Crips gang in Pittsburgh who sexually molested him.

A former classmate testified Smyrnes sexually attacked her when he was 11 years old. A neighbor testified Smyrnes burglarized her home that year. He was convicted of another burglary in 2009.

One of the roommates, Amber Meidinger, 23, was a pivotal witness for the prosecution.

Smyrnes incited the group against Daugherty after claiming she had made a sexual overture toward him, Meidinger testified.

Peck said Smyrnes was trying to impress his girlfriend, Angela Marinucci, 20, a former Greensburg Salem High School student who is serving a sentence of life in prison for her role in Daugherty's slaying.

Meidinger testified the group beat and tortured Daugherty for more than two days. Smyrnes called “family meetings,” she said, and one ended with an unanimous vote that Daugherty had to die.

Dr. Cyril Wecht, a forensic pathologist, testified Daugherty suffered 24 stab wounds. Melvin Knight, 23, a former Swissvale resident who fatally stabbed Daugherty three times in the heart, was sentenced to death. Meidinger testified he acted at Smyrnes' behest.

Meidinger testified that Knight and Smyrnes made repeated attempts to kill her, but “the (expletive) wouldn't die,” according to Smyrnes.

Meidinger said Smyrnes and Knight stuffed the victim's body, which was wrapped in Christmas lights, into a garbage can and dumped in the parking lot of Greensburg Salem Middle School. It was found on the morning of Feb. 11, 2010. Police arrested the six roommates that night.

Audrey Smyrnes, 63, a North Huntingdon nurse, testified she and husband James Smyrnes decided to adopt Ricky Smyrnes when he was 10.

Bobby Murphy, the victim's stepfather, said he spoke with Audrey Smyrnes after she testified on Wednesday. On the stand, she expressed remorse that she did not do enough to help the son she adopted at age 10.

“I told her she didn't let Ricky down. He let her and her husband down,” Bobby Murphy said Thursday after the verdict was returned.

Staff writer Renatta Signorini contributed. Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or Renatta Signorini can be reached at 724-837-5374 or

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