ShareThis Page

Judge nixes gag order in grisly Greensburg murder case

| Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 9:11 p.m.

Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway refused yesterday to issue a gag order in the case of six suspects accused of torturing and killing a mentally challenged Greensburg woman.

Hathaway rejected a request from defense attorney Jeffrey Miller, who asked the judge to issue an order to prevent participants from publicly speaking about the case outside the courtroom.

Miller said his client, Melvin Knight, has been prejudiced because other lawyers in the case have been too outspoken in the news media.

"It benefits both sides in obtaining a fair trial," Miller told the judge during a conference yesterday.

Knight, 20; Ricky Smyrnes, 24; Amber Meidinger, 20; Peggy Miller, 27; Robert Loren Masters, 36; and Angela Marinucci, 18, are charged with first-degree murder and other offenses in the slaying of 30-year-old Jennifer Daugherty in a Greensburg apartment they shared.

Police contend that the six defendants tortured Daugherty for more than two days when they held her captive, assaulted her, shaved her head, and forced her to drink cleaning products and bodily fluids. Daugherty's body, tied up with Christmas lights, was stuffed into a trash can and left in the parking lot at Greensburg Salem Middle School, where it was found Feb. 11.

District Attorney John Peck is seeking the death penalty against Knight, Smyrnes and Meidinger.

Hathaway, who must sort out the logistics of trying six suspects for the murder, ruled that a gag order is not necessary.

"I don't see why counsel would want to try the case in the media," she said.

All six suspects appeared in court, where Hathaway outlined the upcoming schedule in the case.

Defense motions must be filed by Oct. 13. Three days of testimony to hear those issues will be held on Oct. 29, Nov. 1 and Nov. 2.

At least one issue that might be addressed is new evidence. Peck notified defense lawyers that Westmoreland County Prison inmates have reported hearing additional confessions about the murder from some of the suspects.

Hathaway must rule on requests to have the suspects tried separately and for jurors to be selected in another county because of pretrial publicity.

David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and former criminal defense attorney, said the motion for separate trials is unlikely to be granted.

"It makes sense from the point of view of efficiency, and having the witnesses go through the rigors of testimony only once," he said.

That will make things more complicated for the defense attorneys, Harris said.

"What you're going to do if you're only one defendant is to shift the blame onto the others," he said. "It's everybody punching each other out, and the prosecution can sit back."

About 10 years ago, Judge John Blahovec attempted to try six defendants at the same time in a drug-related killing in Bell Township. That became too unwieldy during jury selection and the suspects were tried in two separate trials.

Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said it makes sense for the defense in the Daugherty case to ask for a change of venue, but he added that it is unlikely Hathaway would grant the motion before attempting to select a jury.

"It's an unusual amount of publicity," he said, "but you would be surprised how many people will not have heard of it."

Still, he said, the grisly facts of the case will make finding an impartial jury more difficult. "If they've heard anything, it's going to be bad," he said.

Four suspects have filed pretrial motions. Last week, Meidinger's defense team asked that prosecutors be barred from seeking the death penalty against her. Meidinger is due to give birth this month.

Defense lawyers Emily Smarto and Amy Keim said the Constitution bars the death penalty in cases where a defendant is not accused of actively participating in a murder.

"A non-murdering participant in a felony murder may not be subject to the death penalty unless he played a major role in the murder and acted with extreme disregard for human life," the defense team said in its motion.

In addition, they contend, Meidinger suffers from mental retardation and other mental infirmities, making her exempt from capital punishment.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.