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Westmoreland

Roommate gives jurors gruesome details of 2010 torture-murder in Greensburg

Rich Cholodofsky
| Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, 6:36 p.m.
Melvin Knight
Melvin Knight

Jennifer Daugherty never received an answer to her repeated questions about why she was beaten, tortured and set to be killed by a group of Greensburg roommates, including several she considered friends and one she was interested in romantically, according to one of her attackers.

Amber Meidinger, of the six roommates convicted of Daugherty’s murder, testified Thursday during the fourth day of her former fiancee’s death penalty trial about the brutal beatings, the humiliation and torture imposed on Daugherty — a 30-year-old cognitively challenged woman from Mt. Pleasant who was stabbed to death in February 2010.

Melvin Knight, 29, formerly of Swissvale, Allegheny County, pleaded guilty to stabbing Daugherty to death. Westmoreland County prosecutors are for the second time seeking the death penalty for Knight, the father of a child Meidinger gave birth to while in jail. Knight’s first death sentence was overturned in 2016.

Daugherty, who would have celebrated her 39th birthday on Thursday, had visited Greensburg days before her death for a doctor’s appointment but instead ended up being held captive for two days.

Dressed in a blue prison jump suit and speaking deliberately amid frequent sobbing episodes, Meidinger, 28, in great detail testified about her and Knight’s involvement, along with four others, in Daugherty’s murder.

“I want to explain the truth of what happened, to let the family know the truth. That’s the only reason I’m here,” Meidinger said.

She described meeting Knight at a homeless shelter in Washington County and how they moved around to various locations before ending up in Greensburg in late January 2010, where they met Ricky Smyrnes and Daugherty in front of a bus station. They were invited to live with Smyrnes at his Pennsylvania Avenue apartment that he shared with two others and frequented by Angela Marinucci, a 17-year-old high school student with whom he was romantically involved. Daugherty was also interested in a sexual relationship with Smyrnes, Meidinger testified.

“She was friendly, sweet and trusting,” Meidinger said of Daugherty.

Once the group all gathered together in Smyrnes’ apartment, they almost immediately began bullying and mistreating Daugherty over a period of more than two days, she said.

The group went through her purse, stole money, gift cards and her cell phone; poured liquids into her bag; hit her on the head with filled soda bottles, cut her hair, painted her face with nail polish and dumped liquid and spices on her head. Meidinger said she and Angela Marinucci took turns violently hitting Daugherty with a metal towel rack.

Daugherty was then stripped naked and hidden away in an attic while Smyrnes’ former roommate visited and then was moved to a bedroom by Knight.

“I opened the door and saw Jennifer on the floor. Melvin was on top of her, she had a sock in her mouth and he was holding her down. He was raping her,” Meidinger testified.

Smyrnes then called the first of four “family meetings” to decide how to deal with Daugherty before the group went to sleep.

The next morning, Daugherty tried to escape before she was stopped and punished, Meidinger testified. The group hit her with several items then forced her to drink three different concoctions that contained urine, feces, bleach, cigarette ash and crushed pills.

The group met again and voted to kill Daugherty, Meidinger testified.

She said Smyrnes and Knight tied her up with Christmas lights.

“They were plugged in and Angela was mad because the lights didn’t blink. Jennifer was tied up to look like a Christmas tree,” Meidinger said.

Smyrnes then gave a steak knife to Knight, who asked if Daugherty was ready to die then repeatedly stabbed her in the side and chest and slashed her throat. Smyrnes was given the knife and continued the attack, Meidinger told jurors.

It was then decided to discard Daugherty in a trash can that was left out in a nearby school parking lot to be discovered.

Defense attorney Tim Dawson questioned Meidinger about her reasons for testifying. Meidinger, who like Knight and Smyrnes, was originally charged with first-degree murder and other offenses and was subjected to a potential death penalty. She previously testified for the prosecution in trials for Marinucci, Knight and Smyrnes before she was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge and sentenced to prison for 40 to 80 years. Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck dropped his effort to seek the death penalty against her.

Meidinger insisted in court on Thursday she did not seek a deal to testify for the prosecution.

“I told them I wasn’t expecting anything,” Meidinger said.

Smyrnes was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to death. He is appealing that sentencing.

Marinucci, who was 17 at the time of her arrest and ineligible for the death penalty, was also convicted of first-degree murder. Her life sentence was ruled unconstitutional. She is expected to appear in court next year for a new penalty hearing.

Peggy Miller, 35, and Robert Masters, 45, pleaded guilty to third-degree murder charges. Miller is serving a 35-to-74-year prison sentence and Masters is serving 30 to 70 years behind bars.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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