Commonwealth v. Knight

Decision Date18 November 2020
Docket NumberNo. 775 CAP,775 CAP
Citation241 A.3d 620
Parties COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Melvin KNIGHT, Appellant
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Timothy Paul Dawson, and James H. Robinson Jr., Esqs., for Appellant.

Leo Joseph Ciaramitaro, John W. Peck II, Katie Lynne Ranker, Esqs., Westmoreland County District Attorney's Office, Ronald Eisenberg, Esq. Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, for Appellee.




Melvin Knight appeals the judgment of sentence of death imposed by the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas following his second penalty trial for his role in the 2010 torture and murder of Jennifer Daugherty ("the Victim"), a 30–year-old intellectually disabled woman. For the reasons that follow, we affirm Appellant's judgment of sentence.

I. Background

This Court set forth the disturbing facts of this case in our opinion disposing of Appellant's appeal from his first judgment of sentence:

The evidence revealed that, on February 8, 2010, appellant and his pregnant girlfriend [Amber] Meidinger were at the Greensburg, Pennsylvania bus station when appellant noticed codefendant Ricky Smyrnes. Smyrnes was there with the victim and the other codefendants, Angela Marinucci, Robert Masters, and Peggy Miller. The victim, who had the intellectual capacity of a fourteen-year-old, had taken a bus to Greensburg to attend a doctor's appointment the next day and intended to stay at Smyrnes's apartment. Meidinger recognized the victim from a facility they both attended that provided services to clients with mental disorders and disabilities. In conversation with Meidinger, the victim said she was going to marry Smyrnes; Meidinger noticed tension between the victim and Marinucci after Marinucci overheard the remark.
Marinucci accompanied appellant and Meidinger to their hotel and confided she was in a relationship with a married man; Meidinger eventually learned Smyrnes was the man. At the hotel, Meidinger overheard Marinucci tell Smyrnes during a phone conversation, "[Y]ou better not be with that bitch[,]" referring to the victim. N.T. Penalty Phase, 8/22/12, at 535. Meidinger and appellant later joined Smyrnes at his apartment, where Masters and Miller were also present. Smyrnes invited appellant and Meidinger to stay the night. The victim arrived and later attempted to be intimate with Smyrnes, who rebuffed her and became angry with her.
The next day, the victim decided not to go to her doctor to get her medication, which angered Smyrnes and appellant. While the victim showered, Smyrnes phoned Marinucci and told her about the victim's sexual advances the prior evening. Marinucci responded, "nobody is having sex with my man." Id. at 552. Going forward, the conspirators engaged in a continuing course of abusing the victim.
The conspirators first bullied the victim by taking things from her purse and pouring mouthwash on her purse and clothing. They then hit the victim on the head repeatedly with empty soda bottles, until appellant grabbed her, knocked her into a wall, and began choking her until the victim fell to the floor crying.
Later, Marinucci arrived, still distressed about the victim's advances toward Smyrnes. Marinucci and Meidinger accosted the victim in the bathroom. Marinucci pushed her into a metal towel rack three times and struck her in the chest and head. After the victim denied any interest in Smyrnes, Meidinger shoved her into the towel rack three times, causing her to strike her head. Appellant then dragged the victim into the living room, where he and Smyrnes dumped spices and oatmeal on her head after Marinucci poured water on her. Smyrnes then directed the victim to shower.
After the victim showered, appellant brought her out of the bathroom, forced her to remove her clothes, and threw them out of the window. With Smyrnes's help, appellant cut off the victim's hair, made her clean it, then took her into the living room and stuffed a sock into her mouth. Thereafter, appellant raped her.
After Marinucci decided to spend the night, appellant, Meidinger, and Smyrnes accompanied her to her house to retrieve her prescription medication. Smyrnes instructed Masters and Miller to remain with the victim and not let her leave. As the foursome was returning to the apartment, Miller called and related that the victim was trying to depart. Upon arrival, the group beat the victim, gave her some of Marinucci's medication, and left her in the living room while they went to bed.
The following morning, a dispute over soda led Marinucci to push the victim to the floor and hit her. In defense, the victim kneed Marinucci in the stomach, causing Marinucci to report to Smyrnes that the victim had killed her baby (in fact, Marinucci was not pregnant). Smyrnes confronted the victim, demanding, "[I]f you want to kill my kid, why should I let you live[?]" Id. at 596. Marinucci insisted that Smyrnes choose between her and the victim, leading Smyrnes to call a "family meeting" and ask the others' opinions regarding what kind of mother the victim would be. At this point, the victim appeared to be "out of it," having been beaten, raped, and drugged. Id. at 600.
Following a second "family meeting," appellant put the victim in the bathroom, and Meidinger hit her in the head with a towel rack to force her to drink Marinucci's urine from a cup. The victim gagged into the toilet. Meidinger repeated this action with a second concoction containing feces and urine, striking the victim in the head with the towel rack until she obeyed, again gagging. Meidinger and appellant made a third foul mixture containing powdered detergent, water, and some of Meidinger's prescription medication, which Meidinger forced upon the victim, again hitting her in the head with the towel rack until she consumed it and vomited.
The torture continued unabated. Appellant took the victim into the living room, where he and Smyrnes bound her feet with Christmas lights. When the lights did not function, Smyrnes, appellant, and Meidinger removed the bulbs and tied the victim's ankles and wrists with the empty strings, adding Christmas garland around her ankles. During this time, Miller's nail polish was applied to the victim's face. Smyrnes called a third "family meeting" and inquired whether they should kill the victim. After the "family" voted to kill, Smyrnes forced the victim to write a suicide note and told her the conspirators were going to make her death look like a suicide to avoid being held responsible.
Appellant took a knife from Smyrnes, who told him, "You know what to do." Id. at 636. Appellant and Meidinger took the victim to the bathroom, forced her to her knees, turned off the light, and shut the door. Appellant asked Meidinger if she was ready, and she replied she was. After appellant put something in the victim's mouth to keep her silent, he asked her if she was ready to die, then stabbed her in the chest multiple times, and stabbed and sliced her neck. As the victim lay gasping, appellant exited the bathroom and announced she was not dead yet. Marinucci said to kill her, that she wanted her "out of here." Id. at 617. Smyrnes took the knife and cut the victim's wrists, after which he and appellant choked the victim with the Christmas lights.
After the victim perished, Smyrnes called another "family meeting" to decide what to do with her body. Ultimately, Smyrnes and appellant left the apartment with the victim's body in a plastic bag inside a garbage can. Upon returning, they told the others they had left the can under a truck. The conspirators then went to bed.
The victim's body was discovered later that morning by a man who found the garbage can underneath his work truck in a middle school parking lot. He contacted police, who launched an investigation, and the victim's body was identified. Dr. Cyril Wecht, the forensic pathologist who performed an autopsy on the body, received the body while it was still in the garbage can—placed head first, partially covered with plastic bags, with Christmas lights wrapped around the neck and wrists, and a decorative material binding the ankles. The body had suffered multiple incised wounds

, abrasions, and contusions, and several prescription drugs were found in the victim's system. Dr. Wecht concluded the cause of death was a combination of all of the injuries, but was primarily due to stab wounds of the chest, which penetrated the left lung and went into the heart, producing a substantial hemorrhage. Dr. Wecht opined these injuries were inflicted shortly before death, with the intent to cause pain and suffering: the victim would have remained conscious after the initial infliction of the wounds, bled for a couple of minutes, lost consciousness, and finally died within four to six minutes.

Commonwealth v. Knight , 638 Pa. 407, 156 A.3d 239, 241-43 (2016) (footnotes omitted).

Appellant pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, second-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.1 At Appellant's first penalty phase trial, the Commonwealth pursued two aggravating circumstances: the killing was committed while in the perpetration of a felony, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(d)(6) ; and the killing was committed by means of torture, id. § 9711(d)(8). Appellant asserted four mitigating circumstances, including no significant history of prior criminal convictions, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(e)(1) ; his age at the time of the crime, id. § 9711(e)(4)2 ; extreme duress, id. § 9711(e)(5) ; and the "catch-all" mitigator, id. § 9711(e)(8). The jury found that the Commonwealth established both aggravating circumstances, and that Appellant established the catch-all mitigating circumstance; it concluded, however, that the aggravators outweighed the mitigating circumstances, and thus recommended that Appellant be sentenced to death. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9711(c)(1)(iv).

On direct appeal, Appellant raised fourteen...

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