Court: New penalty trial for man who tortured woman

GREENSBURG (AP) — A man sentenced to death for his role in the torture death of a mentally disabled woman deserves a new penalty trial, the state’s highest court ruled.

Melvin Knight, 27, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the death of 30-year-old Jennifer Daugherty in a dingy Greensburg apartment in February 2010. A Westmoreland County jury in August 2013 decided to sentence him to death instead of life in prison, the only possible punishments for first-degree murder.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that Knight deserved a new penalty trial because jurors weren’t told Knight had no criminal record and should have been allowed to consider that as a mitigating factor.

The new trial has yet to be scheduled.

In Pennsylvania, juries must weigh aggravating factors — including torture — against mitigating factors to determine whether the death penalty is warranted. Knight’s attorneys argued that his mental health issues were a mitigating factor, and the jury agreed but decided that wasn’t enough to outweigh other aspects of Daugherty’s killing.

Knight was one of six people charged in Daugherty’s death. He and Ricky Smyrnes, 30, were sentenced to death.

Prosecutors contend they choked her with a string of Christmas lights before Knight stabbed her on Smyrnes’ orders.

Her death capped a nearly three-day ordeal during which Knight, Smyrnes and four acquaintances tortured Daugherty by beating her, cutting her hair and forcing her to drink a mixture of detergent, human waste and other substances that they hoped would kill her, authorities said. Smyrnes and Knight killed her when it didn’t, authorities said.

Authorities say one of the suspects, then-17-year-old Angela Marinucci, had been dating Smyrnes and became jealous when she learned that Daugherty was romantically interested in him, too. Marinucci is serving a life sentence.

Daugherty’s body was found wrapped in plastic and stuffed into a garbage can. Authorities say Knight and Smyrnes wedged the can under a truck parked in a middle school parking lot, where it was found during a snowstorm.