WESTMORELAND COUNTY, Pa. - The defense suffered a blow before testimony began Monday morning against the man accused of leading six people in the torture and fatal stabbing of a mentally challenged woman two years ago.
Westmoreland Judge Rita Hathaway has reserved her ruling on whether attorneys can pursue a mental infirmity defense in a bid to save Ricky Smyrnes, 26, from a death sentence being sought by District Attorney John Peck.
The judge ordered the defense team not to mention the issue in opening remarks delivered to jurors Monday morning.
Smyrnes, who has lived in Irwin, McKeesport and Greensburg, is accused of spurring his five roommates to torture and stab Jennifer Daugherty, 30, of Mt. Pleasant in a Greensburg apartment. Daugherty thought she was spending the night with people she considered friends. Her body, tied with Christmas lights and garland, was found in a trash can dumped in a school parking lot on Main Street.
Peck told jurors that Smyrnes orchestrated hours of torture against Daugherty during more than two days of captivity.
Peck said Smyrnes presided over three ”family meetings” that Smyrnes called for the group to discuss Daugherty's fate.
“The defendant was wise enough to always have somebody else do his dirty work,” Peck said. “He wasn't going to have blood on his hands. Ultimately, he relied on Melvin Knight to do his dirty work” and stab Daugherty.
Defense Attorney Mike DeRiso told jurors the others terrorized Daugherty at their own initiative. She was beaten, humiliated and forced to drink concoctions of bodily fluids and cleaning detergents.
DeRiso said it was ridiculous to describe Smyrnes as a leader.
“We don't agree this man over here somehow got together the six of these people and started playing puppet master,” DeRiso said.
Their ill will against Daugherty was touched off by Smyrnes' girlfriend, Angela Marinucci, 20, of Greensburg, who perceived Daugherty as a romantic threat, roommate Amber Meidinger, 22, of Greensburg has previously testified.
Meidinger testified against Marinucci, who is imprisoned for life.
The witness also testified against Melvin Knight, the man who fathered the daughter Meidinger gave birth to while being held in Westmoreland Prison, during a sentencing trial in August. Knight is on death row in the state prison near Waynesburg.
Peck has filed notice he will seek the death penalty against Meidinger, who testified she had no plea deal but wanted to tell the story “because it is the right thing to do.”
Still awaiting trial are Peggy Miller, 30, and Robert Masters Jr., 39.
This article was written by Channel 11's news exchange partners at TribLIVE.