Many times Joy Burkholder has told of how the murder of her mentally challenged sister has devastated their family. On Monday, she said that to her sister's one-time friend, who stood by as others tortured Jennifer Daugherty, and cast a vote with them to kill her.
"You forced me to see things that I should have never seen," she told Peggy Miller at an emotional sentencing hearing at the Westmoreland County Courthouse.
Though Miller, 31, and other co-defendant, Robert Masters Jr., 40, weren't the ringleaders of the so-called "Greensburg Six" who conspired to kill Daugherty, 30, the pair did nothing to help her as she was tortured over two days inside a squalid Greensburg apartment and stabbed 24 times, her body dumped in a trash can, prosecutors said.
For that, Common Pleas Judge Rita Hathaway ordered Masters to serve 30 to 70 years in prison and Miller to serve 35 to 74 years for third-degree murder, conspiracy to commit homicide and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
She said the case "still gives me chills" and stands out as the most difficult in her 26 years as a judge and prosecutor.
Ms. Burkholder said she hoped it would be the last time she'd have to explain how her sister's "unimaginable" death has changed her family's lives. But the case's finality is tentative.
One accomplice, Angela Marinucci, was who was 17 at the time of the crime, is serving a life sentence, but will have to be resentenced due to a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down mandatory life terms for juveniles. Then there are the potential appeals. The state's highest court has already denied one.
Daugherty's family was satisfied with the sentences Monday, but didn't think they could ever forgive.
"How do you forgive someone for torturing and murdering your child?" said Denise Murphy, the victim's mother, after the joint hearing. "I just don't know how that's possible."
For their roles in Daugherty's death, Ricky Smyrnes, 28, and Melvin Knight, 24, are on death row. Amber Meidinger pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, testified against Smyrnes and Knight, and was sentenced to 40 to 80 years in prison.
Meidinger, 24, has testified that Smyrnes held "family meetings" to take a vote on whether Daugherty should be killed, and they all voted yes. Prosecutors said Smyrnes instigated the torture of Daugherty, who was held captive, beaten and forced to drink mixtures of feces, urine and bleach. Meidinger said Knight stabbed her and bound her with Christmas lights.
Daugherty's body was discovered stuffed in a trash can in the parking lot of Greensburg Salem Middle School on Feb. 11, 2010.
"People who read about this can't believe it happened," said District Attorney John Peck in asking the judge for a punishment that "equates with the harm" Miller and Masters caused.
On Monday, the last two defendants, each shackled and slumped in their seats, stood, apologized to Daugherty's family and read from a written statement.
"If I had to do it over again, it would be different," Masters said. "I was scared for my life. ... I should have helped her."
Miller said: "I want you to know that I am sorry. ... I blame myself each and every single day for what happened."
Masters' mother, who lives in Dectaur, Ill., and was unable to travel for the sentencing, testified by phone that her son was always a follower and had intellectual difficulties after a vehicle wreck. Miller's court-appointed attorney, Laura Beth Gutnick, said her client was abused as a child and had intellectual problems.
Both said their clients were, as Masters' court-appointed attorney William Gallishen put it, guilty more of a crime of omission than one of commission, and feared for their lives.
Judge Hathaway said the attorneys "glossed over" the fact that the pair were at home alone with Daugherty while the others had left, and had the opportunity to call for help.
"But for the acts of omission, we wouldn't be here today," the judge said.
Molly Born: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1944. First Published March 17, 2014 2:15 PM