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Westmoreland torture-slaying convict Smyrnes says death row isolation too cruel

Rich Cholodofsky
| Wednesday, July 29, 2015, 11:03 p.m.

Convicted killer Ricky Smyrnes wants a job.

But with a long waiting list for the few employment opportunities for inmates, Smyrnes sits in his small cell on death row at the State Correctional Institution in Greene County for 23 hours a day with little to do, according to his lawyers.

Smyrnes' “alone time,” along with the continued moratorium on the death penalty ordered earlier this year by Gov. Tom Wolf, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, his lawyers said.

Smyrnes' defense team on Wednesday asked that an expert be appointed to help make their case that the ringleader in the 2010 torture slaying of Jennifer Daugherty should have his death sentence overturned.

“Experts .. have written extensively and litigated issues concerning solitary confinement ... all resulting in courts finding that such indefinite periods in solitary confinement are cruel and unusual as they inflict mental suffering upon individuals,” said defense lawyers Brian Aston and Jim Fox.

Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway ordered that a hearing be conducted on the defense's request to hire an expert witness. A hearing date hasn't been set.

Smyrnes, 29, formerly of Irwin, was condemned to death following a jury trial in 2013 where he was convicted of first-degree murder. Daugherty, 30, of Mt. Pleasant, was mentally challenged.

Prosecutors said Smyrnes led a group of six Greensburg roommates who held Daugherty captive for two days. They humiliated, abused, beat, tortured and eventually stabbed her to death. Her body, wrapped in Christmas lights and garland, was stuffed into a trash can and left under a truck parked in a snow-covered school parking lot.

Witnesses said Smyrnes was one of two men who stabbed Daugherty and led “family meetings” in which a vote was taken to kill their captive.

District Attorney John Peck said the death penalty is the proper sentence for Smyrnes and questioned the discomfort of his living conditions.

“Certainly he must prefer being on death row rather than having the death penalty imposed upon him,” Peck said. “Clearly this was one of the worst homicide cases we've had in Westmoreland County, at least in my career.”

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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