Convicted killer Ricky Smyrnes' adoptive mother told a jury Wednesday that she realized early on that he would be a challenge, but she was a trained nurse with a structured, stable home and felt she could handle him.
"I thought love could conquer all," said Audrey Smyrnes, 63, retired from UPMC Presbyterian after 40 years as a registered nurse. "I knew he was going to take a lot of patience and love and I thought I could do it all."
From the time they adopted Ricky at age 10, she and her late husband struggled to deal with his outbursts, inability to learn and emotional disorders, she said. After he left home at 18 and was on his own, she feared he was destined for a bad end.
"I knew deep in my heart something was going to happen," she said, "but I thought it would happen to him. I thought he would be the one who would be killed."
Instead, prosecutors said, he led five roommates in the torture and killing of Jennifer Daugherty, 30, in a Greensburg apartment in February 2010.
Now the district attorney wants him executed, and Ms. Smyrnes took the stand for the defense to spare him that fate in favor of life in prison.
Ms. Smyrnes said she "fell in love" with Ricky after seeing his picture on TV and took the boy into her North Huntingdon home, where he lived with her, her husband and their adopted daughter. Her husband, James, wanted a boy to carry on his name.
But Ricky proved more than they bargained for.
Ms. Smyrnes said he had trouble adjusting to his new home life, often pining for his biological parents even though he had endured what defense witnesses have said was a horrific childhood full of abuse at their hands. Diagnosed with depression, personality disorders and other emotional and cognitive problems, he was impossible for the Smyrneses to control. At age 11, he raped a 10-year-old classmate and ransacked and burglarized his neighbor's home. He was adjudicated delinquent by the juvenile courts in both instances.
Ms. Smyrnes said he didn't fit in at the Norwin schools he attended, did poorly in reading and math and was constantly in and out of treatment programs. At home, he fought with his sister and didn't get along with his mother.
"I don't think he ever bonded with me," she told the jury.
After tough teen years that saw several failed attempts at employment, he moved out and eventually had two children with his wife, but both were taken away from the couple immediately because they had no parenting skills, no income and no decent housing, witnesses said.
"I'm not sure he understands what it means to be a parent," said Karen Kiefer, a lawyer who represented him in court proceedings after the county took his children. He never got them back.
By age 26, he was living a shiftless life, subsisting on Social Security disability checks and living with five other people in the squalid Greensburg house where Ms. Daugherty, who was mentally challenged, was killed. Prosecution witnesses said Mr. Smyrnes and his girlfriend, Angela Marinucci, manipulated the others into torturing Ms. Daugherty for two days before murdering her.
District Attorney John Peck is attempting to persuade the jury that Mr. Smyrnes was the ringleader of the group who knew what he was doing.
Terrance Faye, Mr. Smyrnes' lawyer, is trying to prove that he is so emotionally and mentally disabled that he cannot be executed. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that executing mentally disabled people is a violation of the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
A psychologist hired by the defense has said Mr. Smyrnes is mildly mentally disabled. But two experts for the prosecution testified Monday that he is not.
The jury is expected to begin deliberating today.
Mr. Smyrnes is the third member of the six charged to go on trial. Two have already been convicted: Knight is on death row; Marinucci is serving life in prison for her role as an instigator.
Knight's former fiancee, Amber Meidinger, has testified at all three trials without a plea deal and is awaiting disposition. Two others, Peggy Miller and Robert Masters, are expected to enter pleas.neigh_westmoreland
Torsten Ove: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-231-0132. First Published February 28, 2013 5:00 AM