Jury quickly sentences killer of Greensburg woman to death
Melvin Knight is escorted to a squad car outside the courthouse Thursday.
Joy Burkholder, left, receives a hug from her husband, Lance, after Melvin Knight is sentenced to death for the torture and murder of her sister, Jennifer Daugherty, Thursday at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg. Heather Smitley, right, hugs Daugherty's mother Denise Murphy.
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After she had been beaten, drugged and force-fed feces and urine, prosecutors said Jennifer Daugherty's gang of torturers -- six people who were staying in a dilapidated Greensburg apartment where she was being held captive -- sat down for a meeting to decide whether she should live or die.
"[Ricky] Smyrnes apparently went around to the group that was living in the house and said 'What's your vote, for life or death?' " said Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck. On that day, in February of 2010, Melvin Knight, a 20-year-old mentally ill transient who had arrived at the apartment with his pregnant fiancee, voted with the five others for Daugherty to die and later stabbed her to death with a steak knife.
Thursday, Knight's fate was left in the hands of a jury of five men and seven women, who sentenced him to death in the torture and killing of Daugherty, a 30-year-old whose mental disability made her quick to trust, her family said, and vulnerable to being taken advantage of.
The verdict came after nine days of testimony in which prosecutors rehashed the gruesome details of her torture and death, bringing in the trash can where her beaten and bloodied body was found. The jury deliberated just two hours before returning their decision in the evening.
"What is your verdict?" asked Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas Judge Rita Hathaway.
"Death," the foreman said.
The word prompted Daugherty's sister, Joy Burkholder, to burst into tears, while Knight remained motionless, clasping his chin with his hand. His face betrayed no emotion as he left the courtroom and he said nothing as he was escorted to a police car outside.
Knight is still awaiting sentencing on kidnapping and conspiracy charges, which he also pleaded guilty to in April.
The five others in the apartment -- Mr. Smyrnes, 26; Robert Masters Jr., 38; Peggy Miller, 29; Knight's fiancee Amber Meidinger, 22; and Angela Marinucci, 20 -- were charged with homicide, aggravated assault, kidnapping and conspiracy.
Marinucci was convicted in May of 2011 of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. The remaining four are awaiting trial.
Prosecutors are pursuing the death penalty against Ms. Meidinger and Mr. Smyrnes.
In Knight's sentencing hearing, which began Aug. 20, Mr. Peck argued that the case fell in the rare category of crimes that warranted the death penalty because of aggravating circumstances, which must be proven for a jury to sentence a defendant to death.
"It was not just the defendant's intent to kill Jennifer Daugherty, it was his intention to inflict pain and suffering," he said. "It was heinous. It was atrocious. It was depraved."
A couple of days before her death, Daugherty took a bus from her parents' home in Mt. Pleasant to go stay with Mr. Smyrnes, who she believed to be her boyfriend. His dilapidated apartment, at 428 N. Pennsylvania Ave., had recently become home to Knight and Ms. Meidinger, his pregnant fiancee, according to Knight's defense attorney.
But Mr. Smyrnes was also involved with Marinucci, who was then 17, and Daugherty's flirtation with him enraged her. She and Ms. Meidinger beat Daugherty and Knight joined in. He told police he stomped on her stomach because he though she had struck Ms. Meidinger.
The beating touched off more than a day of bizarre torture. Knight force her to drink his urine, force-fed her sleeping pills and chopped off her hair as she begged to be let go. He bound her with Christmas lights and garland. Ms. Meidinger testified she saw Knight rape Daugherty. Prosecutors ultimately never charged him with rape because Ms. Meidinger did not bring it up until more than a year after Daugherty's death.
"He had a secret he needed to preserve, preserve from police, preserve from law enforcement," he said. "He had raped a woman ... a woman who was really a child."
After he stabbed her, he carried her body out to a trash can in the parking lot of Greensburg Salem Middle School, where it was discovered Feb. 11.
But Knight's attorney countered that he, too, was learning disabled and suffered from "cognitive difficulties."
Attorney Jeffrey Miller also asked the jury to take into account Mr. Knight's age -- he was 20 when he killed Ms. Daugherty and he had only a marginal criminal record that included a citation for disorderly conduct.
In closing arguments, Mr. Miller painted a picture of Knight as a man who, like Ms. Daugherty, was learning disabled, bullied as a child and struggled to make friends. His desperation made him susceptible to peer pressure, Mr. Miller said, and susceptible to the influence of Mr. Smyrnes, whom he cast as the gang's ringleader.
Ultimately, the jury was not swayed by Mr. Miller's portrayal of Knight. In capital cases, juries are asked to balance aggravating circumstances, like whether other felonies were committed in conjunction with murder, and with mitigating circumstances, such as whether a defendant was coerced. In this case, the jury found the fact that Knight had tortured and kidnapped Ms. Daugherty warranted the death penalty, though they conceded he had "mental health issues," a mitigating circumstance.
Outside of the courtroom, Mr. Peck said he was relieved at the verdict. It was the first time in his lengthy career, he said, that he had ever proved torture in a penalty case.
"It's hard not to be saddened" by the case, he said.
Ms. Burkholder, Daugherty's sister, said she wished to see Knight executed but said she worries he would likely remain on death row for decades.
"He's going to die in prison," she said. "That's the best we could hope for and that's what we'll get."
Knight joins 200 men and two women on death row in the state, which has not executed a prisoner since 1998.
First Published August 31, 2012 12:00 am