Penalty phase begins today for man in death of disabled woman

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A jury won't have to decide Melvin Knight's guilt when he goes on trial today in the torture slaying of a mentally disabled woman who was held captive for two days in a dingy apartment by six people she thought were her friends.

The 22-year-old Swissvale man pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in April, showing, legal experts say, that he doesn't believe he can persuade a jury to convict him of a lesser crime and that his only recourse is to acknowledge what he did and hope the jury will sentence him to life in prison instead of the death penalty.

Duquesne University law professor and death penalty expert Bruce Ledewitz said this type of message from a defendant -- that he knows he did something terrible and regrets it -- "is crucial in death penalty cases."

The penalty phase, a trial in itself, is expected to last up to 10 days in Greensburg, where the woman's torture took place.

Mr. Knight's attorney, Jeffrey Miller, didn't return repeated telephone calls seeking comment for this story. Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck declined to comment.

But Mr. Ledewitz and University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff, an expert in criminal defense strategies, said Mr. Knight's strategy means he believes his only hope is for the jury to have more mercy on him than he had on 30-year-old Jennifer Daugherty, described by her family as having the mental capacity of an adolescent.

Daugherty's body was found wrapped in plastic and stuffed into a garbage can that was wedged beneath a truck parked in a middle school parking lot Feb. 11, 2010. Her head was shaved, and her face was painted with nail polish, indignities police determined were among the least she endured.

Police believe Mr. Knight and five other people tortured Daugherty after she visited an apartment the others informally shared.

That's where Angela Marinucci incited the others to beat and abuse Daugherty because she was jealous that Daugherty also had a sexual relationship with a petty criminal named Ricky Smyrnes.

Marinucci was convicted and sentenced last year to life in prison; she wasn't eligible for the death penalty because she was only 17 when the crimes occurred. Mr. Smyrnes, 25, whose lawyer has said he has "extremely low mental functioning," is scheduled for trial in October and could face the death penalty if convicted.

Amber Meidinger, 22, who was pregnant with Mr. Knight's child at the time, and another couple accused of having a lesser role in Daugherty's torture are awaiting trial but have been cooperating by testifying to the grisly details.

They've said Daugherty was tied up with Christmas lights and tinsel, compelled to write a suicide note, then forced to drink a cocktail of human waste, laundry bleach and prescription drugs. They said that when that didn't kill her, Mr. Knight, who's also accused of raping her during the ordeal, stabbed her on Mr. Smyrnes' orders before both men choked her in a tug-of-war using Christmas lights wrapped around her neck to ensure she was dead before dragging her body across town in the garbage can.

When Mr. Knight unexpectedly pleaded guilty in April, he told Judge Rita Hathaway, "I feel it is the right thing to do, and I have to 'fess up to what I did."

The 12 jurors must sentence Mr. Knight to death if they decide unanimously that the aggravating circumstances of Daugherty's death -- her rape and torture -- outweigh mitigating circumstances in Mr. Knight's favor, namely his contrition and unspecified mental health issues. A less than unanimous verdict results in a life sentence, meaning Mr. Knight has to sway only one juror in his favor.

Still, his guilty plea and apology might not be enough to spare him the death sentence.

Mr. Ledewitz said that's because "every jury wants to condemn the defendant at least once, and if they can't condemn a person in the guilt phase, they'll condemn him in the penalty phase."

Mr. Burkoff agreed that defendants who adopt Mr. Knight's strategy usually don't win.

"And the reason they don't win is these guilty pleas typically occur in very heinous and gory and atrocious cases," he said. "The jury may give the person some credit for, 'Hey, he owned up to it,' but they also realize, 'Hey, he still did it.' "

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