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Family conveys anguish to jury during sentencing phase of Daugherty murder trial

| Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Before Jennifer Daugherty boarded a bus to visit friends in Greensburg, she wrote a note to her mother.

“I hope that you have a good day and I also love you very much. I will talk with you some time later. Love Jen,” she wrote.

Denise Murphy would never hear from her daughter again.

Three days later, on Feb. 11, 2011, Murphy would identify Daugherty's body for Greensburg police.

Daugherty, a 30-year-old mentally challenged woman from Mt. Pleasant, had been fatally stabbed. Her body, bound with Christmas lights and garland, was folded into a trash can and abandoned at the middle school parking lot on Main Street.

Her family tried to put their anguish into words Wednesday for a Westmoreland County jury who will decide whether Ricky Smyrnes, 26, should be put to death or imprisoned for life for Daugherty's murder.

District Attorney John Peck told jurors Smyrnes deserves to die because he incited a group of six roommates to torture and kill Daugherty after she came to visit them.

Joy Burkholder, Daugherty's sister, said her family still grieves.

“I hate Christmas time. I hate Christmas lights. We have services for her every Feb. 14, and it's not Valentine's Day any more. We cremated her and didn't bury her because we couldn't leave her body in that condition,” Burkholder said.

Daugherty's stepfather, Bobby Murphy, said he is tormented by decisions that were made to allow Daugherty to travel to Greensburg.

“We still ask ourselves, ‘What if we had done things differently?'” Bobby Murphy testified. “‘What if we just didn't let her go that Monday morning?'”

Jurors learned about Daugherty's learning disabilities, her generosity, her bubbly personality and her trusting nature.

She was always seeking affection, her mother said.

“She was pretty happy and she just wanted to have friends. She attached herself to anyone who would be friends with her,” Denise Murphy testified.

Daugherty thought she was visiting friends until Smyrnes turned the group against her so he could prove his love for Angela Marinucci, 20, who also turned on Daugherty, according to testimony in the trial that concluded with a first-degree murder conviction against Smyrnes.

The group held Daugherty captive for more than two days. They beat her, cut her hair, painted her face with nail polish and forced her to drink urine, feces and cleaning products. They mocked her and stole items from her purse. Then Smyrnes and Melvin Knight made several attempts to kill her before Knight fatally stabbed her in the heart, roommate Amber Meidinger told the jury.

Murphy said that although her daughter struggled with chores, such as managing money and cooking, she wanted to be married and have children.

“She just wanted to be normal,” Murphy testified. “She was quirky. She loved scary movies, wrestling, football, and she liked playing cards.”

In contrast, jurors learned that Smyrnes led a troubled life marred by violence. Witnesses testified Tuesday that Smyrnes was 11 years old when he sexually assaulted a classmate and burglarized a neighbor's home in North Huntingdon.

On Wednesday, jurors learned Smyrnes was convicted of conspiring to burglarize a mental health activity center in Greensburg.

City police Detective Jerry Vernail testified that Smyrnes admitted to stealing more than $530 in cash, jewelry, cell phones and a laptop computer when he, his wife and another man ransacked West Place center on Feb. 2, 2009.

Peck said Smyrnes' violent past and the horrific torture of Daugherty justify a death sentence.

He is expected to present additional evidence about the torture when the trial reconvenes Feb. 25 before Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway.

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

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