Experts disagree over Melvin Knight's mental capacity to face death penalty
Two mental health experts on Wednesday gave Westmoreland County jurors different opinions as to whether Melvin Knight suffers from an intellectual disability that renders him ineligible for the death penalty.
During the seventh day of Knight’s sentencing trial, defense expert Christine Nezu, a clinical psychologist from Philadelphia, testified for the defense that Knight was not able to function in society and was “profoundly adaptively impaired,” both conditions that render him intellectually disabled.
“I believe Melvin has severe deficits and trouble adapting to the real world,” Nezu testified.
Bruce Wright, a prosecution-hired psychologist from Pittsburgh, told jurors Knight knew right from wrong, could function adequately and is not intellectually impaired.
Knight, 29, formerly of Swissvale, is seeking to have his life spared for his role in the 2010 torture and slaying of a mentally disabled Mt. Pleasant woman in 2010.
Prosecutors want Knight sentenced to death.
Testimony in the trial is expected to conclude Thursday with a final defense witness, followed by closing arguments and jury deliberations. Knight on Wednesday told Common Pleas Court Judge Rita Hathaway he would not testify.
Prosecutors contend Knight was one of six Greensburg roommates who in February 2010 held 30-year-old Jennifer Daugherty captive for more than two days. She was beaten and tortured before being bound with Christmas lights, fatally stabbed, stuffed into a garbage bin and discarded in a snow-covered parking lot.
Nezu told jurors she found three mitigating factors why Knight should be spared from the death penalty:
- Knight did not have the capacity to appreciate his conduct;
- his emotional and mental ages ranged between 9 and 12; and
- he was susceptible to be dominated by another person.
The defense maintains that Knight was under the influence of co-defendant Ricky Smyrnes when he stabbed and participated in the beatings and torture of Daugherty during her captivity. Knight pleaded guilty in 2012 to first-degree murder and was sentenced to death — a penalty that was later overturned by a state appeals court, which ordered a new trial to determine whether he lives or dies.
Wright, offering rebuttal testimony for the prosecution, told jurors that since Knight’s death sentence was overturned, he started working in his prison’s cafeteria, earning 14 cents an hour, routinely visits the facility’s law library to research legal cases and attends education classes, including recently having signed up to learn heating, ventilation and air conditioning repair skills.
Wright said Knight is an avid reader, having recently completed a biography about President Donald Trump.
Knight’s intelligence scores on IQ tests range between 77 and 97 indicate he is not disabled, although he was diagnosed with depression, psychosis, substance abuse, attention deficit disorder and antisocial behavior, Wright testified.
“He had the capacity to appreciate his criminal conduct. He chose not to, but he had the capacity,” Wright said.
Knight’s mother, Yolanda Rue, told jurors that her son had dealt with mental health issues since he was first diagnosed at age 6. She testified Knight enrolled in special education classes and later attended schools better equipped to deal with his mental health and learning needs.
Rue said her son was routinely bullied as a child.
“He couldn’t be without supervision because of poor choices he made. He could be talked into anything if he thought it was fun,” Rue testified.
She said Knight as a late teen rebelled against her authority and moved away from home after he turned 18. She learned through a friend he became homeless and later reunited with her son after he briefly came home with his pregnant girlfriend, identified as co-defendant Amber Meidinger, a few weeks before their arrest for Daugherty’s murder.
Rue testified she would not allow Meidinger to live in her home with Knight and offered to find her a shelter for pregnant women until her son was able to find a home of his own.
“Amber and Melvin weren’t good with that,” she testified.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.