Ringleader trial opens in tortured woman's 2010 Greensburg killing

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Jennifer Daugherty, a mentally challenged 30-year-old from Mount Pleasant, died three years ago this month after days of torture, her battered body wrapped in plastic bags and Christmas decorations and stuffed into a trash can.

On Monday, the man the government says orchestrated that abuse went on trial for his life in a Westmoreland County courtroom.

Ricky Smyrnes, 26, could face the death penalty if the district attorney can prove he was the ringleader of the so-called "Greensburg Six," three men and three women charged in connection with Ms. Daugherty's murder inside a squalid Greensburg apartment only blocks from the courthouse.

Two co-defendants -- Angela Marinucci, 20, and Melvin Knight, 23 -- already have been convicted. Marinucci is serving life in prison and Knight has been sentenced to death.

Another member of the group, Amber Meidinger, 23, also faces a potential death penalty but is the government's key witness.

Two others -- Peggy Miller, 29, and Robert Masters, 39 -- are awaiting trial.

In his opening statement Monday, District Attorney John Peck said Mr. Smyrnes was the leader whose influence over the others led directly to Daugherty's death in February 2010.

Mr. Peck said Mr. Smyrnes instigated the torture, forced Ms. Daugherty to write a suicide note and held "family meetings" to decide if she should live or die. When all six chose death, Mr. Peck said, Mr. Smyrnes told Knight to kill Ms. Daugherty.

"He said, 'I can't do it, you have to do it,' " Mr. Peck told the jury.

Knight stabbed the victim in the chest multiple times in the bathroom. She died of blood loss. Her body was found in a trash can in a school parking lot on North Main Street.

Mr. Peck said that although Mr. Smyrnes did not kill Ms. Daugherty, he is just as guilty as Mr. Knight because he set the events in motion.

Mr. Peck said Mr. Smyrnes held sway over the others, spurring them on to beat Ms. Daugherty with a towel rack and a crutch and force her to drink concoctions of feces, urine and household detergents. Their anger toward Ms. Daugherty was ignited and fostered by Marinucci, Mr. Smyrnes' girlfriend, who saw Ms. Daugherty as a rival for Mr. Smyrnes' affection and wanted her dead.

Mike DeRiso, Mr. Smyrnes' lawyer, told the jury that the idea of his client as a "puppet master" is "ridiculous."

Mr. DeRiso warned the jury that the evidence in the case will be disturbing.

"It's heinous, it's disgusting," he said of the crime. "As citizens, you should be offended. I am."

But he asked the jurors to set aside their emotions and examine the facts.

Mr. DeRiso's main goal is to spare Mr. Smyrnes the death penalty. He can do that if he can prove his client is mentally impaired.

But he has already lost several battles in that effort. Judge Rita Hathaway previously rejected an attempt by Mr. Smyrnes to plead guilty but mentally ill.

Mr. DeRiso then indicated in pretrial motions that he will argue that Mr. Smyrnes is mentally impaired.

But the judge issued a second defeat, reserving ruling on the motion and telling Mr. DeRiso that he may not raise the infirmity defense in his opening statement.

Mr. Peck has maintained that Mr. Smyrnes is not mentally impaired, knew what he was doing and deserves the death penalty.

The trial is expected to last about a month.

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Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-231-0132. First Published February 5, 2013 5:00 AM


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