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Prosecutors offered deal to one of six charged in Daugherty killing

Rich Cholodofsky
| Tuesday, April 24, 2012, 11:14 a.m.

Westmoreland County prosecutors were willing to let one of the six defendants charged with the torture slaying of a mentally handicapped woman plead guilty to a lesser charge.

District Attorney John Peck offered to drop a first-degree murder charge against Robert Masters if he agreed to testify truthfully against the other five suspects in the February 2010 stabbing death of Jennifer Daugherty, 30, of Mt. Pleasant, he said in a Oct. 29, 2010, letter.

Masters, 37, was charged in the slaying with Ricky Smyrnes, 25; Melvin Knight, 22; Amber Meidinger, 21; Peggy Miller, 28; and Angela Marinucci, 19. Prosecutors will seek the death penalty against Meidinger, Smyrnes and Knight.

Police said Daugherty was held captive for more than two days in a Greensburg apartment shared by the defendants. She was tortured, beaten and stabbed to death before her body was found in a trash can in the Greensburg Salem Middle School parking lot.

Details of the plea bargain talks emerged Friday during an appeal hearing for Marinucci, who was convicted in May of first-degree murder and sentenced to a mandatory life sentence. Marinucci was jealous of Daugherty for interfering with the convicted killer's relationship with Smyrnes, according to trial testimony.

Defense attorney Michael DeMatt said Marinucci deserves a new trial because Judge Rita Hathaway did not tell jurors that Masters and Miller were unavailable to testify.

In Peck's letter, he wrote that Masters could plead guilty to third-degree murder and conspiracy. His sentence would be left up to Hathaway after all the alleged accomplices were tried, he said.

The maximum sentence for third-degree murder is 20 to 40 years in prison.

In January, defense attorney Bill Gallishen asked for a sentence of five to 10 years. Masters would not testify unless a plea bargain included a specific sentencing recommendation from Peck, Gallishen said in a letter to the prosecutor.

No additional offer came, Gallishen said. Masters testified against his alleged accomplices at a pretrial hearing last fall. He was not called as a witness during Marinucci's trial.

In court yesterday, Gallishen said Masters would have testified for the prosecution, but Gallishen would not let Masters testify for the defense.

"I indicated he would assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination," Gallishen testified.

Defense attorney Laura Gutnick testified Miller also refused to testify for Marinucci.

Meidinger testified against Marinucci with no plea deal, providing jurors with a chilling, detailed account of Daugherty's final days.

County Detective Richard Kranitz explained the decision to use Meidinger and not Miller and Masters.

"They were inferior (witnesses) to Meidinger," Kranitz testified.

Smyrnes is scheduled to appear in court next month for a hearing to determine whether his diminished mental abilities preclude the prosecution from seeking the death penalty against him.

Knight's trial is scheduled to begin in January.

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