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Death penalty issues to take spotlight in Daugherty case

Rich Cholodofsky
| Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 6:08 p.m.

The conviction of Greensburg teen Angela Marinucci for the slaying of Jennifer Daugherty on Thursday has set the stage for the prosecution of five other suspects accused of kidnapping the mentally challenged woman, torturing her for more than two days, and stabbing and choking her.

One one side, defense attorneys are claiming two suspects are so intellectually deficient, they are ineligible for the death penalty.

On the other side is District Attorney John Peck, who will seek the death penalty against Ricky Smyrnes, 25, and Melvin Knight and Amber Meidinger, who are both 21.

Meidinger testified that Marinucci wanted Daugherty dead, so Marinucci lured the victim to a Greensburg apartment shared by the suspects.

Marinucci ordered Smyrnes to get rid of Daugherty because Marinucci was jealous about Daugherty's relationship with Smyrnes, Marinucci's boyfriend, Meidinger and jailhouse informants testified in a nine-day trial before Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway.

The prosecution contends that Marinucci; Smyrnes; Meidinger; Knight; Peggy Miller, 28; and Robert Masters, 37, held Daugherty captive in the Greensburg apartment.

They beat her, made fun of her, dumped spices on her head, forced her to drink mixtures of human waste and cleaning fluids, and tied her up with Christmas lights and garland, Meidinger testified. She said Smyrnes and Knight stabbed and choked Daugherty, 30, of Mt. Pleasant.

In about three months, Marinucci will be sentenced to a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for the conviction on first-degree murder. She was ineligible for the death penalty because she was 17 years old when Daugherty was killed.

Hathaway will hear testimony in July about the death penalty issues raised by attorneys for Smyrnes and Meidinger.

Smyrnes contends he is ineligible for capital punishment because he has an IQ of 67 and functions at a third-grade level, according to petitions filed by defense attorneys.

Meidinger's attorneys claim that her intellectual deficiencies render her ineligible for the death penalty under a 2002 decision in a Virginia case by the U.S. Supreme Court, which banned the execution of people with intellectual disabilities.

Knight's lawyers are challenging whether the death penalty itself is constitutional.

The Supreme Court has indicated that a person with an IQ of about 70 can be considered mentally retarded, rendering an offender ineligible for the death penalty.

"An IQ of 70 is often used to determine (a mental disability), but when someone is at a significant number above or below that, it's not a problem. In cases where they are close to that number, we can have a legitimate disagreement," said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

Hathaway will hear testimony about the suspects' intelligence levels and weigh other evidence to determine whether Peck can seek the death penalty.

"It's not fully subjective. There is objective criteria, but it is ultimately up to the judge," Harris said.

No hearing has been scheduled on Knight's constitutional challenge to the death penalty. Knight's lawyers might pursue a mental infirmity defense, court records show.

Smyrnes' attorney, Mike DeRiso, and Knight's lawyer, Jeffrey Miller, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Smyrnes and Knight will receive separate trials. Meidinger could be tried with either defendant or on her own. Trials dates won't be scheduled until September.

Meidinger's attorney, Amy Keim, said she did not know whether her client would go to trial and she might seek a plea deal.

Keim and Peck said no deal was offered for Meidinger's testimony.

"I feel it was the right thing for me to do," Meidinger told jurors. "I want to speak the truth to the family. I can't do nothing else."

Harris said Meidinger's testimony could work to her advantage. It could become a factor in whether she serves life in prison or is put to death.

"That's always something that would be considered as a mitigating factor at the time of sentence," Harris said.

Attorneys for Masters and Miller are trying to get plea bargains. Peck said they were less culpable than the four other suspects.

Multiple murder counts

Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said the conviction of Greensburg teen Angela Marinucci for first-, second- and third-degree murder in the slaying of Jennifer Daugherty was substantiated by the evidence.

Prosecutors charged Marinucci and five other suspects in the 2010 torture slaying of Daugherty, a mentally challenged woman, with all three murder counts, along with two counts of conspiracy and one count of kidnapping.

On Thursday, jurors found Marinucci guilty of all counts.

"It stands to reason that if you are guilty of first-degree murder and second-degree murder, you'd also be guilty of third-degree murder," Peck said Friday.

While convictions of multiple murder counts are not the norm, Peck said it is not a rare occurrence for a jury to find a defendant guilty of first-degree murder and what are called lesser included homicide offenses.

"It's not unusual," Peck said. "Many times a jury will determine that multiple counts are applicable."

Judge Rita Hathaway instructed jurors that they could find Marinucci guilty of all three murder counts.

"There are six counts on the verdict slip and you can come back with any number of verdicts, guilty on all of them, on none of them or any combination," Hathaway said.

Peck said each murder charge carries different elements.

First-degree murder is a premeditated, intentional killing. Second-degree murder is a killing that occurs during the commission of another felony, such as kidnapping. In Pennsylvania, third-degree homicide is committed with wickedness and hardness of heart.

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