Greensburg Six ringleader gets death in torture slaying

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Ricky Smyrnes joined Pennsylvania's death row Thursday night, the second member of the so-called Greensburg Six to receive the death penalty in the torture slaying of Jennifer Daugherty in 2010.

A Westmoreland County jury deliberated about four hours before imposing the death sentence on Smyrnes, 26.

"Justice is being done," said Ms. Daugherty's mother, Denise Murphy. "Jen had a voice today."

"I'm glad he's getting the death penalty," said Bobby Murphy, Ms. Daugherty's stepfather. "Whether he got the death penalty or life in prison, he's off the street. He can't hurt no one else ever again."

Ms. Daugherty's sister, Joy Burkholder, said it didn't really matter to her which sentence Smyrnes received because Pennsylvania inmates spend decades on death row.

"More than anything," she said, "I want my sister back."

Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said Smyrnes was the ringleader of a group of six roommates who tortured Ms. Daugherty, 30, of Mount Pleasant for two days before she was stabbed to death in February 2010.

The man who carried out the stabbing, Melvin Knight, was sentenced to death last year.

One of the keys to whether Smyrnes would get the death penalty was his mental ability. His lawyer, Terrance Faye, argued that he is mentally disabled and so cannot be executed. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that executing mentally disabled people violates the Constitution.

Mr. Peck and his prosecution team argued that Smyrnes is not mentally disabled and should be held fully accountable for Ms. Daugherty's death.

Earlier in the day in its first verdict, the jury sided with the prosecution on that issue, then returned to the jury room to deliberate further over whether Smyrnes should die.

The jury decided that the factors favoring the death penalty -- the torture that Ms. Daugherty endured and Smyrnes' felony history -- outweighed mitigating factors raised by the defense that Smyrnes is mentally ill and suffered abuse as a child.

Mr. Peck said Smyrnes instigated the torture of Ms. Daugherty, a mentally challenged woman who was held captive, beaten and forced to drink concoctions of feces, urine and bleach.

The key government witness, co-defendant Amber Meidinger, testified that Smyrnes held "family meetings" to take a vote on whether Ms. Daugherty should be killed. They all voted yes, after which Smyrnes handed Knight a knife and told him to stab her.

Cyril Wecht, a forensic pathologist, testified that Ms. Daugherty suffered 24 stab wounds. After she was dead, Smyrnes and Knight stuffed her body in a trash can and dumped it at Greensburg Salem Middle School, only a few blocks from the courthouse.

At trial Mr. Peck said Smyrnes was a "conniving" leader, luring Ms. Daugherty to the rancid apartment he shared with the others and shrewdly manipulating them into attacking her with the help of his girlfriend, Angela Marinucci, who saw Ms. Daugherty as a romantic rival for Smyrnes' affections.

Far from the mentally impaired simpleton the defense insisted he was, Smyrnes knew what he was doing and held sway over the group, Mr. Peck said.

Marinucci, 17 at the time, is serving life in prison. She was spared the death penalty because she was too young.

Ms. Meidinger, 23, also faces a potential death penalty but has testified for the government in three trials. She has no deal with the prosecution, however, and the case against her is pending. Mr. Peck would not discuss her status Thursday night.

Two other members of the group -- Peggy Miller and Robert Masters -- are awaiting trial but are expected to enter pleas.

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Torsten Ove: First Published March 1, 2013 5:00 AM


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