GREENSBURG, Pa. — A prosecutor told a jury Thursday that a western Pennsylvania man deserves the death penalty for the torture-murder of a mentally disabled woman because his crimes were "heinous, atrocious (and) depraved," while a defense attorney urged the jury to consider "reasons for life."
Defense attorney Jeffrey Miller argued that 22-year-old Melvin Knight's relatively young age, his lack of a prior criminal record and evidence that he did the bidding of one of his co-defendants are all reasons the jury should give him life in prison instead of the death penalty.
The closing arguments by Miller and Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck came Thursday in the death penalty trial of Knight. He has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the February 2010 murder of 30-year-old Jennifer Daugherty, and a jury must decide whether he will get the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
Peck contends Knight deserves to be executed by lethal injection because he raped and helped torture Daugherty.
"It was not just an intent to kill Jennifer Daugherty, ladies and gentlemen, there was clearly an intent to cause pain and suffering to Jennifer Daugherty," Peck argued.
Daugherty's body was found wrapped in plastic and stuffed into a garbage can by Knight and Ricky Smyrnes, 25, who, unlike Knight, has contested his guilt and will also face the potential death penalty when he's tried in October.
Daugherty's hair had been cut off — by Knight — as she was systematically tortured by Knight, Smyrnes and four others at Smyrne's dingy apartment in Greensburg, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. The garbage container with her body was found wedged under a truck parked in a middle school parking lot in a snowstorm on Feb. 11, 2010.
Peck contends Daugherty was tortured for two days then killed because Smyrnes' then-girlfriend, Angela Marinucci, had convinced the others that Daugherty had sexual desires for Smyrnes and Knight. Marinucci was convicted and sentenced last year to life in prison and didn't face the death penalty because she was just 17 when Daugherty was killed.
Amber Meidinger, 22, who was pregnant with Knight's child at the time and has since given birth, testified at Knight's penalty trial that Daugherty was tied up with Christmas lights and tinsel, compelled to write a suicide note, then forced to drink a cocktail of human waste, bleach and prescription drugs. Meidinger is awaiting trial and faces the death penalty, too.
When the vile mixture didn't kill Daugherty, her tormentors voted that she must die. Knight acknowledged stabbing her on Smyrnes' orders before both men choked her and got rid of her body.
Miller argued that Knight's limited intelligence, mental health issues and the fact that Knight pleaded guilty to the murder and apologized for it in April are reasons to spare his life.
The defense attorney argued that Knight was under the "substantial domination" of Smyrnes — a petty criminal with a history of violence who was only casually acquainted with Knight before the murder.
"Ricky says do this, Ricky says do that," Miller said. "That's not to say Melvin Knight didn't do anything wrong (but) it gives you a reason to be able to grant (Knight) life."
To support his position, Miller reminded the jury of testimony from a psychologist about how Knight, then 15 or 16, was coerced into stealing chocolate milk by children five years younger than him when they were all in a facility for troubled youths.
But Peck noted that while Knight stabbed Daugherty at Smyrne's urging, he raped her when Smyrnes wasn't around and stomped on her stomach.
"There is no evidence he was under any duress or that he was under substantial domination," Peck said. "I ask you to do what the law requires and that is to come back with a sentence of death."
The jury was set to begin deliberating after Common Pleas Judge Rita Hathaway instructed them on the law.