The jury delivered the death penalty instead of life in prison for 22-year-old Melvin Knight after hearing nearly two weeks of testimony about the grisly death of Jennifer Daugherty in February 2010.
Knight, who pleaded guilty to murder, is to have the sentence formally imposed Friday by Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway, who presided over his trial. The jury deliberated two hours Thursday evening before the foreman announced the one-word verdict, "Death."
Knight becomes the 200th man on death row in Pennsylvania. Three women also are on death row.
Pennsylvania has executed only three people since the U.S. Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976, all of whom voluntarily ended their appeals. The last was on July 6, 1999, when Gary Heidnik was put to death for murdering two women, among six he kidnapped, tortured and raped while holding them prisoner in Philadelphia.
In sentencing Knight to death, the jury found that two aggravating circumstances existed—that the 30-year-old Daugherty, of Mount Pleasant, was the victim of other felonies, in this case kidnapping and aggravated assault, and that she was tortured.
District Attorney John Peck said Daugherty's death is the only case he can remember handling in 30 years in which torture was an aggravating factor.
"It's a very impressive aggravating circumstance if it can be proved," Peck said.
In Daugherty's killing the evidence for torture was voluminous.
Authorities say Daugherty's body was found wrapped in plastic and stuffed into a garbage can by Knight and 26-year-old Ricky Smyrnes, who, unlike Knight, has contested his guilt and faces a potential death penalty when he's tried in October.
Daugherty's hair was cut off by Knight as she was systematically tortured by him, Smyrnes and four others at Smyrnes' dingy apartment in Greensburg, 30 miles east of Pittsburgh, authorities say. The garbage container with her body was found wedged under a truck parked in a middle school parking lot in a snowstorm.
Peck contended Daugherty was tortured for two days and 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 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, authorities said. Knight acknowledged stabbing her on Smyrnes' orders before both men choked her with the Christmas lights and got rid of her body.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Miller argued that Knight's limited intelligence and mental health issues and the fact that Knight pleaded guilty to the murder and apologized for it in April were reason enough to spare his life. Miller left the courthouse without speaking to reporters, and Knight didn't comment as he was led, handcuffed, into a waiting sheriff's car.
Daugherty's sister, Joy Burkholder, said the family was satisfied with the verdict though it still faces the prospect of death penalty trials for Smyrnes and Meidinger and murder trials for two other defendants.
"The only thing I think that sits differently is I think that Angela (Marinucci) should have been put to death, too," Burkholder said.
Still, Daugherty's mother, Denise Murphy, said, "I think a little bit more justice was served today."