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Testimony to continue in resentencing for Greensburg murder/torture defendant

November 30, 2018

Nearly nine years after Jennifer Daugherty’s body was found tied up with Christmas decorations and stuffed in a plastic trash bin left under a truck parked in a snow-covered Greensburg parking lot, one of her attackers was back in court to have a second jury determine whether he lives or dies.

Testimony started Monday in the resentencing trial for Melvin Knight, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to first-degree murder and other offenses for the February 2010 torture slaying of Daugherty, a 30-year-old mentally disabled woman from Mt. Pleasant.

As his voice cracked with emotion, Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck described to jurors the condition of Daugherty’s body when it was found and the efforts made to identify her and then notify family about what happened over the previous few days in a Pennsylvania Avenue apartment in Greensburg.

Knight, 29, formerly of Swissvale, Allegheny County, and five others held Daughtery captive, beat and humiliated her before they continued the torture through rape and by making her drink concoctions of bodily fluids, Peck said. Daugherty was then repeatedly stabbed to death during the violent final attack, he said.

“She wouldn’t die and they were frustrated to her holding on to life the way she did,” Peck told jurors during his opening statement.

Following a two-week trial in 2012, a jury had sentenced Knight to die by lethal injection. A state appeals court in 2016 vacated the sentence and ordered a new sentencing trial.

“Some murders are worse than most murders. This murder was worse and deserves the death penalty. Some defendants are worse than others and this defendant is the worst and deserves the death penalty,” Peck said.

The prosecution is expected to present evidence at the resentencing trial before Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court Judge Rita Hathaway as if Knight were on trial for the murder. This includes details of Knight’s actions as well as those of the five other roommates who have previously been convicted of Daughtery’s murder. One of the co-defendants, Ricky Smyrnes, described by the prosecution as the ringleader, was sentenced to death for his role in the slaying. Smyrnes is appealing his sentence.

Peck said he will ask jurors to consider death for Knight because he committed the murder during the course of other felonies such as kidnapping, rape and assault and it was done by means of torture.

Defense attorney Tim Dawson is asking the jury to impose a life sentence rather than the death penalty. He said he will attempt to show six mitigating factors. He will focus on Knight’s history of mental illness, lack of prior criminal record, his young age at the time of the killing, Smyrnes’ domination of him and a general category that will be up to the jury to identify.

Knight was subservient to Smyrnes, who was the ultimate villain in Daugherty’s murder, according to Dawson.

“It was Ricky Smyrnes who called all the shots. Ricky Smyrnes you may consider to be the Charles Manson,” Dawson told jurors.

Dawson said the defense is expected to say Knight is ineligible for the death penalty because of his low intellect, an argument not made during his first sentencing trial.

Jurors on Monday heard testimony from four witnesses, including one woman who said as she drove to work through Greensburg hours before the body was discovered, she saw two men drag a large trash bin through the snow.

Daniel Grant told jurors he found the body stuffed into a trash bin under his truck parked at Greensburg-Salem Middle School.

Three grisly photographs depicting Daugherty’s blood-covered body, bound with Christmas lights with her head shaved and face painted with red nail polish, were also shown to the jury Monday.

Testimony is expected to continue Tuesday.

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