Defendant's mental ability at stake in torture trial

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Dueling mental health experts have squared off in a Greensburg courtroom with the fate of accused killer Ricky Smyrnes at stake.

Mr. Smyrnes is on trial for his life in the February 2010 torture slaying of Jennifer Daugherty in the squalid Greensburg apartment where prosecutors say he manipulated and controlled his five roommates.

His mental abilities were not supposed to be part of the trial, but because of some last-second lawyering Wednesday, they are, and now jurors will have to decide which expert they believe.

Alice Applegate, a psychologist hired by the defense, says Mr. Smyrnes' IQ is so low that he is mentally disabled. If the jury sides with her, he can't be executed under the law.

Bruce Wright, a psychiatrist hired by the state, says Mr. Smyrnes is not impaired. If the jury sides with him and convicts Mr. Smyrnes of first-degree murder, he will be eligible for the death penalty.

Ms. Applegate took the stand Wednesday, and Mr. Wright is expected to testify today -- after which the jury will begin deliberating.

Jurors were supposed to get the case Wednesday, but Mike DeRiso, Mr. Smyrnes' lawyer, made a last-minute attempt to put Ms. Applegate on the stand to say his client is so mentally deficient that he could not form the intent to kill Ms. Daugherty, 30, a mentally challenged woman from Mount Pleasant.

The prosecution says Mr. Smyrnes was the leader of the so-called "Greensburg Six" accused of holding Ms. Daugherty captive for two days and torturing her before one of them, Melvin Knight, killed her with a knife.

Mr. DeRiso argued that Mr. Smyrnes' intelligence level is low enough to meet the legal definition of mental retardation. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing people with mental disabilities violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Westmoreland County Common Pleas Judge Rita Hathaway had previously ordered that Mr. DeRiso could not present a mental infirmity defense until the penalty phase of the trial because Mr. Smyrnes maintained that he was not the killer.

But that changed after the prosecution on Tuesday played a recorded statement that Mr. Smyrnes gave to police Feb. 11, 2010, the day Ms. Daugherty's body was found. In that tape, he said he was under duress from Mr. Knight while Ms. Daugherty was being tortured. Mr. Smyrnes said he was afraid of Mr. Knight, who pleaded guilty and is on death row.

Mr. DeRiso said Wednesday that the playing of the tape "opened the window" for him to present a duress defense, allowing him to argue that Mr. Smyrnes' mental incapacity made him susceptible to Mr. Knight's influence.

The judge sided with Mr. DeRiso and allowed him to present his expert, which the prosecution will now have to counter.

Mr. Smyrnes is the second member of the Greensburg Six to go to trial. The first was his girlfriend, Angela Marinucci, 20, who is serving a life term for her role in instigating the torture. District Attorney John Peck said Mr. Smyrnes told her that Ms. Daugherty wanted to have sex with him.

Enraged, she egged on the others to abuse Ms. Daugherty, beating her repeatedly and forcing her to drink concoctions of feces, urine and bleach.

In the end, according to the prosecution, Mr. Smyrnes held a series of "family meetings" and asked everyone to vote if Ms. Daugherty should live or die. All six chose death.



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