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Fight over Smyrnes' life set to begin

| Monday, Feb. 18, 2013, 12:21 a.m.
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.

Defense attorneys seeking to save Ricky Smyrnes from a death sentence for the 2010 murder of Jennifer Daugherty will present evidence that Smyrnes was molested by his father and sold into sex with other men by his prostitute mother in exchange for drugs.

A Westmoreland County jury last week convicted Smyrnes of first-degree murder for the torture and murder of Daugherty, a 30-year-old mentally challenged woman from Mt. Pleasant who was tortured by six roommates as she was held captive in a Greensburg apartment.

On Tuesday, District Attorney John Peck will begin presenting evidence to the jury about aggravating circumstances that justify the death penalty for Smyrnes, 26, who has lived in McKeesport and Irwin. Peck said Smyrnes manipulated the others to abuse Daugherty to prove his love for Angela Marinucci, 20, a former Greensburg Salem High School student imprisoned for life.

“It's only the defendant who brought about Jennifer's death,” Peck told jurors. “It's only the defendant who was capable of manipulating these five other people.”

Defense witnesses will tell jurors about Smrynes' mental deficiency and horrific childhood, mitigating circumstances that his attorneys argue warrant a sentence of life imprisonment.

Mark Bookman, executive director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, a nonprofit legal defense group in Philadelphia, contends Smyrnes' low intelligence should spare him from the death penalty.

“Any way you cut it, Ricky Smyrnes is a very low-functioning person,” Bookman said.

Daugherty's body was bound with Christmas lights and garland, stuffed into a trash can and abandoned in the parking lot at Greensburg Salem Middle School. It was found on the morning of Feb. 11, 2010.

Melvin Knight, 23, a former Swissvale resident who plunged a knife into Daugherty's heart, has been sentenced to death.

Peck will argue that Daugherty's horrific ordeal and Smyrnes' violent past justify putting him to death.

Smyrnes was convicted in 2008 for beating his former wife with a furnace door and for a burglary in 2009 in which he stole $530 and a laptop computer from a center for mentally challenged youths, records show.

A witness list submitted to Judge Rita Hathaway includes Smyrnes' ex-wife, Karena Smyrnes, and his adoptive mother, Audrey Smyrnes. In 2008, Audrey Smyrnes sought protection from the courts when her adopted son broke into her home and threatened to kill her, records show.

But defense attorneys Mike DeRiso and Terrance Faye contend Smyrnes' low intelligence and poor upbringing justify sparing his life.

Smyrnes is “mildly mentally retarded” and emotionally traumatized as a result of childhood abuse, said Dr. Alice Applegate, a forensic psychologist. “What we presented to the jury from Dr. Applegate is a fraction of what there is,” DeRiso said.

St. Vincent College law professor Bruce Antkowiak said jurors must consider two issues. First, they must decide whether Smyrnes' intelligence is so low that it precludes the death penalty.

Second, if that fails, the defense must prove that mitigating factors outweigh aggravating factors.

“What the jury is told is that the defense has the burden of proof to show he is retarded,” Antkowiak said.

Applegate testified that on eight different tests, Smyrnes' IQ ranged between 60 and 92. He scored the highest, 92 and 81, when he was 8 years old. He took the other tests after age 18.

Under the law, Antkowiak said, a defendant seeking to show he is intellectually deficient must prove that handicap existed before he was 18.

In addition, the defense must prove Smyrnes suffers from limited adaptive behavior, meaning he cannot function in a normal life, Antkowiak said.

Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed a ruling that removed an Allegheny County man from death row when his lawyers successfully argued that his IQ was so low it rendered him ineligible for the death penalty.

Connie Williams, 61, of Crafton cannot be executed because his IQ was between 70 and 75, the court said. He was convicted in the 2002 murder of his 53-year-old wife. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that putting mentally disabled defendants to death violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Bookman contends Smyrne's mental deficits should be considered as mitigating evidence to spare his life.

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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