Expert witnesses cannot agree about whether a man who pleaded guilty to murder is mentally fit to face the death penalty.
In February 2010, a group of six men held 30-year-old Jennifer Daugherty captive for more than two days. Daugherty was beaten and tortured, bound with Christmas lights, and stabbed to death. Her body was then stuffed into a garbage bin and thrown in a snow-covered parking lot.
Melvin Knight pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for his role in Daugherty’s death. He was sentenced to die by lethal injection, but the sentence was overturned and a new trial was ordered to determine his fate.
Defense expert Christine Nezu, a clinical psychologist from Philadelphia, testified that Knight was not able to function in society and “profoundly adaptively impaired.” She said, “I believe Melvin has severe deficits and trouble adapting to the real world.” Nezu maintains that Knight did not have the capacity to appreciate his conduct, his emotional and mental ages ranged between 9 and 12, and he was very susceptible to domination by another person.
Knight’s defense team has argued that he was under the influence of his co-defendant Ricky Smyrnes when he participated in the beating, torture, and stabbing of Daugherty.
In preparation for the trial, the prosecutors hired New York mitigation specialist Jennifer Wynn to research Knight’s background in preparation for the trial. Wynn is an associate professor of criminal justice at City University in New York. Wynn was paid $7,117 for her work.
Prosecution expert Bruce Wright testified that Knight knew right from wrong, could function adequately, and is not intellectually impaired. Wright testified that Knight has been working in the prison cafeteria, taking classes to learn skills, and regularly visiting the prison law library. His intelligence scores range between 77 and 97, which indicate that he is not disabled.
Wright testified that Knight was diagnosed with depression, psychosis, substance abuse, attention deficit disorder, and antisocial behavior. He said, “He had the capacity to appreciate his criminal conduct. He chose not to, but he had the capacity.”
District Attorney John Peck described Knight as a mean, vengeful, and vindictive man that deserved to die. He argued that Knight’s actions were to protect his own self-interest and hide the crimes that he had committed against Daugherty, including allegations that he raped her. Peck told the jurors, “The defendant crossed the line. He knew if he didn’t keep this darkness to himself, all his actions were motivated to prevent this rape from being discovered by anyone.”
Jurors also heard testimony from Knight’s mother, Yolanda Rue. Rue testified that her son had been dealing with mental health issues since the age of six. She said that she enrolled Knight in special education classes and special schools to deal with his special needs. Rue testified, “He couldn’t be without supervision because of poor choices he made. He could be talked into anything if he thought it was fun.”
After the sentencing hearing, a jury of six men and six women deliberated several hours before determining that Knight should be sentenced to death for his role in Daugherty’s killing.