Leader of group in Westmoreland County torture-slaying case goes on trial

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The accused ringleader of a group of six people charged in the torture-slaying of a mentally disabled woman in Greensburg three years ago went on trial for his life today in a Westmoreland County courtroom.

Ricky Smyrnes, 26, could face the death penalty in the murder of Jennifer Daugherty, 30, in February 2010.

Two co-defendants - Angela Marinnucci, 20, and Melvin Knight, 23 - have already been convicted, and Mr. Knight has been sentenced to death.

Another of the so-called "Greensburg Six." Amber Meidinger, 23, also faces a potential death penalty but is the government's key witness.

Two others -- Peggy Miller, 29, and Robert Masters, 39 -- are awaiting trial.

In his opening statement today, District Attorney John Peck said Mr. Smyrnes was the leader of a conspiracy whose influence over the others led to Ms. Daugherty's death after days of torture and abuse in a dingy Greensburg apartment not far from the courthouse.

Mr. Peck said Mr. Smyrnes "orchestrated" the torture, forced Ms. Daugherty to write a suicide note and held "family meetings" to decide if she should live or die. When all six chose death, Mr. Peck said, Mr. Smyrnes told Mr. Knight to kill Ms. Daugherty.

"He said, 'I can't do it, you have to do it,' " Mr. Peck told the jury.

Mr. Knight stabbed the victim in the chest. Her body, wrapped in plastic bags and Christmas lights, was found stuffed in a trash can in a school parking lot on Main Street.

Mr. Peck said that although Mr. Smyrnes did not kill Ms. Daugherty, he is just as guilty as Mr. Knight because he set the events in motion.

Mr. Peck said Mr. Smyrnes commanded the others to beat Ms. Daugherty and force her to drink concoctions of feces, urine and detergents. Their anger towards Ms. Daugherty was ignited by Ms. Marinucci, Mr. Smyrnes' girlfriend, who saw Ms. Daugherty as a rival for Mr. Smyrnes' affection.

Mike DeRiso, Mr. Smyrnes' lawyer, told the jury that it is "ridiculous" to consider his client as a "puppet master" and suggested that everyone acted on their own in torturing and killing Ms. Daugherty.

Mr. DeRiso warned the jury that the evidence in the case will be disturburing.

"It's heinous, it's disgusting," he said of the crime. "As citizens, you should be offended. I am."

But he asked the jury members to set aside their emotions and examine the facts.

"This is not a whodunit," he said. "This is a whodunit-to-what-degree."

Mr. DeRiso had indicated in pre-trial motions that he will argue that Mr. Smyrnes is mentally impaired, but he wasn't allowed to mention that to the jury. Judge Rita Hathaway reserved ruling on the motion and told Mr. DeRiso that he can't raise the infirmity issue in his opening statement.

The judge had previously rejected an attempt by Mr. Smyrnes to plead guilty but mentally ill.

Mr. Peck has argued that Mr. Smyrnes is not mentally impaired.

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