Trial to begin for accused leader in Westmoreland County torture slaying

| Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Death row inmate Melvin Knight will not testify against his alleged accomplice in the fatal stabbing of a mentally challenged woman.

Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck will seek the death penalty against Ricky Smyrnes, 26, formerly of Irwin and McKeesport. He is accused of leading a pack of six roommates while they terrorized and tortured Jennifer Daugherty, 30, of Mt. Pleasant for more than 36 hours and then fatally stabbed her.

Knight had contacted prosecutors to say he would testify against Smyrnes in the trial that is scheduled to begin on Monday morning before Judge Rita Hathaway.

That offer was withdrawn once his attorney intervened.

“Melvin won't be testifying,” said Jeffrey Miller, Knight's defense lawyer.

Miller sought an emergency court hearing before Judge Al Bell to stop discussions between Knight and prosecutors until Miller could meet with his client in the state prison near Waynesburg, Greene County. Miller declined to comment on those discussions.

Knight, who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, was sentenced to death in August. Miller is appealing that verdict.

Peck will ask jurors to find Smyrnes guilty of first-degree murder. If they reach that verdict, Peck then will ask them to condemn Smyrnes to death by lethal injection for the murder in an apartment on Pennsylvania Avenue in Greensburg. Jurors could elect to send him to prison for life.

Another alleged accomplice, Amber Meidinger, 22, described Daugherty's last days when Meidinger testified against Knight, her fiance, and at an earlier trial for Angela Marinucci, 20, of Greensburg. She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors did not seek death for Marinucci because she was 17 at the time of the slaying.

Smyrnes set off a rivalry between Marinucci, his girlfriend, and Daugherty over his affections, according to testimony.

Although Knight did not testify at his sentencing trial, jurors heard a taped confession he gave to police after the victim's body was found in a trash can in the Greensburg Salem Middle School parking lot on the morning of Feb. 11, 2010.

Knight claimed he feared Smyrnes, so he followed his orders.

Smyrnes directed the group while they beat Daugherty with a towel rack, forced her to drink cleaning detergents mixed with bodily excretions, and tied her with Christmas lights and garland, according to previous testimony. Smyrnes held “family meetings” so the group could decide whether Daugherty should die and ordered the victim to write a fake suicide note, Meidinger told jurors.

Also charged are Peggy Miller, 30, and Robert Masters, 39, a couple who claimed they did not join in the torture. Prosecutors said they did nothing to help Daugherty escape her captors.

“Well, if we wouldn't do what Ricky asked us to do, we would have been in the same predicament as Jennifer — tied up, gagged, stuff like that,” Knight told police.

More than 60 witnesses are scheduled to testify in what is expected to be a four-week trial for Smyrnes. The jury of seven men and five women was selected last month.

Before jurors hear opening statements from attorneys, Hathaway will be asked to rule on a prosecution request to bar the defense team from pursuing a diminished capacity defense to spare Smyrnes because he is mentally disabled and has multiple personality disorder.

Smyrnes told police that Knight killed Daugherty.

He “stabbed her with a knife ... a kitchen knife,” Smyrnes said. “I never hurt her.”

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or

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