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Suspect in torture-slaying might seek insanity defense

Rich Cholodofsky
| Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011

One of six Greensburg roommates charged with torturing and killing a mentally challenged woman last year might pursue an insanity defense.

In court documents filed Tuesday, the defense attorney for Melvin Knight requested money to pay for medical records needed to conduct a psychological evaluation to determine whether such a defense should be pursued.

"These records will be necessary for a proper evaluation of the defendant's mental competency and to determine whether the defendant was legally insane or mentally ill at the time of the offense ...," wrote attorney Jeffrey Miller.

Knight, 21; Ricky Smyrnes, 24; Amber Meidinger, 21; Angela Marinucci, 18; Robert Loren Masters, 37; and Peggy Darlene Miller, 27, are charged with first-degree murder and related offenses in connection with the Feb. 11 killing of 30-year-old Jennifer Daugherty.

Daugherty's body, wrapped in Christmas lights and garbage bags, was found stuffed into a trash can under a vehicle in a snow-covered parking lot at Greensburg Salem Middle School. Police contend the six roommates held Daugherty captive for more than two days, tortured her and stabbed her to death.

Prosecutors will seek the death penalty against Knight, Smynes and Meidinger, identified by police as the ringleaders of the group.

Miller has suggested in previous court filings that Knight suffered from a mental infirmity that would prevent the prosecution from seeking the death penalty. Bringing his mental status into play could lead to the defense asking a judge or jurors to return a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but mentally ill.

Duquesne School of Law Professor Bruce Antkowiak said both verdicts specifically address a defendant's mental capability at the time of an alleged crime.

"The number of times these mental defenses work is very, very rare," Antkowiak said.

A finding of not guilty by reason of insanity would require a jury to determine that a defendant had a mental disease or defect that made him unable to appreciate the nature of his actions or unable to determine that those actions were wrong.

"It's like a guy who thinks he's watering his lawn with a hose when he's actually shooting someone," Antkowiak said.

That verdict essentially would allow a defendant to be freed or to face a civil mental health commitment for an unspecified period of time.

With a verdict of guilty but mentally ill, a defendant would be sentenced for his actions.

Antkowiak said that verdict would not immediately bar the prosecution from seeking the death penalty, but it would make it far more difficult for jurors to impose death instead of a term of life imprisonment.

Knight and the other defendants are scheduled to appear in court with their lawyers on Thursday for a conference with Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway to map out the future proceedings in the case.

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