3 defendants remain to be prosecuted in Greensburg torture slaying case

| Monday, March 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Amber Meidinger has taken the stand three times to tell the horrific tale about the final days of Jennifer Daugherty, a mentally challenged woman from Mt. Pleasant who was tortured for more than two days before she was stabbed 24 times.

Meidinger, 23, was among six roommates who turned on Daugherty, 30, when she visited their Greensburg apartment. The six were arrested on Feb. 11, 2010, the day the victim's body was found in a garbage can.

District Attorney John Peck said that Meidinger's testimony was important in obtaining first-degree murder convictions against Ricky Smyrnes, 26, a former North Huntingdon resident who was sentenced to death last Thursday, and Angela Marinucci, 20, a former Greensburg resident who was sentenced Aug. 3, 2011, to life in prison.

Meidinger also testified in August, when a jury handed a death sentence to Melvin Knight, 23, a former Swissvale resident who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. He is the father of Meidinger's 2-year-old daughter.

After the grueling finale to Smyrnes' trial, the victim's family once again spoke to reporters at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg after the verdict came in on Thursday night.

“We're happy we're halfway there. I'd like to be all the way there,” said Joy Burkholder, Daugherty's sister.

The family might be spared trials for the last three suspects.

Although Peck has filed notice he will seek the death penalty against Meidinger, the final cases could be resolved through plea bargains, attorneys said.

“More than anything else, I want my sister back,” Burkholder said. “Life, death, it doesn't make a difference to me. They'll probably die of natural causes anyway.”

Meidinger testified with no deal in place.

“I felt it was the right thing to do to come up here and speak the truth. I can't bring her (Daugherty) back, so it is the best I can do,” Meidinger told jurors during Marinucci's trial.

Attorney Amy Keim, who is representing Meidinger, said last week there have been no formal discussions about a plea agreement.

Meidinger “has accepted responsibility and she has shown remorse and she will continue to do that,” Keim said. “I will approach John Peck with regards to some type of negotiated disposition.”

Meidinger spent about two days on the witness stand during each of the trials to describe how Daugherty was beaten, raped, humiliated, drugged and fatally stabbed.

Meidinger inflicted several of the beatings and fed Daugherty concoctions of urine, feces, spices and cleaners, the witness said. She was present when Knight plunged a knife into the victim's chest.

“I'm having a first baby in jail because of the crime,” Meidinger wrote in a letter to Judge Rita Hathaway in July 2010, two months before the birth of her daughter by Knight. “I just never thought my life would end up like this but I pray everynite.”

Meidinger is prepared to testify again, if necessary.

“She will continue to do this because she thinks it is the right thing to do. She is aware there is still a potential for the death penalty, but she is answering to a higher calling,” Keim said.

Peck said plea bargains could be discussed for Meidinger and Robert Masters, 39, and Peggy Miller, 30, the other two defendants.

“There have been discussions with counsel for all the defendants to resolve these cases other than a trial,” Peck said.

“I acknowledge the effort of Ms. Meidinger in testifying and I recognize her testimony was important in each case. Certainly in resolving her case, those factors will be considered.”

William Gallishen, the lawyer for Masters, and Laura Gutnick, the attorney for Miller, said they anticipate plea bargain talks will begin soon for their clients.

Daugherty's family members said they do not object to plea bargains for the remaining defendants.

“We'll just leave it up to John Peck and his team to decide what to do,” said Denise Murphy, the victim's mother.

Meidinger told Knight's jurors that she felt, as a mother, that the Daugherty family deserved to know what happened to their daughter. Knight's mother, who has custody of Meidinger's child, brought the infant to court as Knight was sentenced to death.

Keim said she plans to submit to Peck a packet of mitigating evidence to support a sentence of life imprisonment for Meidinger, including evidence of mental retardation that would preclude the death penalty.

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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