Murder Of Mentally-Ill Pittsburgh Woman Could Test Hate Crimes Law

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The acting attorney general of Pittsburgh is investigating the murder of Jenny Daugherty, a mentally disabled woman. Last year President Obama signed legislation extending the definition of hate crimes to include the mentally disabled. But now officials are trying to determine whether the murder qualifies as a hate crime. Host Michel Martin speaks with Sadie Gurman, who reported the murder for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Curtis Decker, the executive director of the Disability Rights Network, an advocacy group in Washington D.C.


As you just heard, we just spoke with Tom Perez about how federal hate crimes law has been expanded under the Obama administration to cover sexual orientation and persons with disabilities. We have another story now that speaks to that issue, and I have to caution that there are some disturbing facts in this case that might not be appropriate for all listeners. Its a story out of the Pittsburgh area where the acting U.S. attorney is looking into the horrific murder of a mentally disabled woman.

Last Thursday, Jennifer Daugherty was found dead in a plastic garbage container at a middle school in Greenburg, Pennsylvania. Police have said that the victim was bound, beaten and stabbed repeatedly. Police have charged three men and three women with kidnapping and the murder of this 30-year-old woman whose stepfather says had the mental capacity of a 12-year old. Federal officials are trying to determine whether this murder qualifies as a hate crime under the new legislation signed by President Obama last October.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we called Sadie Gurman. She has reported on the case for the Pittsburg Post-Gazette. Also with us is Curtis Decker. He is the executive director of the Disability Rights Network, an advocacy group here in Washington, D.C. He is here with me in the studio. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. CURTIS DECKER (Executive Director, Disability Rights Network): Thank you.

Ms. SADIE GURMAN (Pittsburg Post-Gazette): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, Sadie, as I mentioned, weve skipped over some of the details of the awful treatment this young woman is alleged to have endured. It's enough to say I think it was degrading and humiliating in the extreme to a point where there was an editorial on the Post-Gazette entitled "Cruel and Inhuman: Seeking Lessons a Young Womans Horrific Death." Now, I understand that there was a hearing scheduled for today, which has been postponed because the defendants had head lice and they have to be quarantined. But whats the status of the case? Whats the next step in this case?

Ms. GURMAN: Well, the next step is that, depending on their health, the defendants will appear in court in two weeks just for their preliminary hearing. So thats basically just to see if they have enough evidence to hold them for trial.

MARTIN: How did this group of people all know each other?

Ms. GURMAN: Thats something police are still looking into right now. They said theyre still trying to figure out how everybody met, how these six people met, and how they knew Ms. Daugherty. But what they have said at this point is that she was acquainted with all of them and she had some kind of relationship with one of the defendants, Ricky Smearns(ph).

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GURMAN: They have not elaborated on that.

MARTIN: They dont know what the nature of the relationship was?

Ms. GURMAN: Not really.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) not saying. Is there any sense or has anything been reported about what the motivation may have been?

Ms. GURMAN: Well, theres some speculation that jealousy may have played a role, but police still arent certain and they were reviewing some of the - I guess they got some pretty lengthy statements from some of the defendants and so thats what they were reviewing over the past couple of days to try to figure out, you know, why this happened, what was the motivation.

MARTIN: And Curtis, Im going to bring you in. Sadie, I want you to standby with us. Curtis, this obviously is a very disturbing case just - if this would happen to any human being. But I think what makes people particularly upset is the fact that this woman has been reported to have had diminished mental capacity and therefore her relatives say she's especially sort of trusting and open. And I wanted to ask - is there a is this an isolated example or do you find cases in which people are taken advantage of because of their mental capacity?

Mr. DECKER: Yes, absolutely. I think this case is getting the attention because of the horrific facts and the ultimate murder. But we certainly are aware of a long history of violence and exploitation against a range of people with disabilities. And its only sometimes these horrific cases that actually get the attention of the public. It's one of the reasons why we work so hard to keep disability as a protected class in the hate crimes bill, but its a much broader issue across the whole array of human interaction in terms of both financial and sexual as well as physical violence.

MARTIN: What would need to be established for this to be considered a federal hate crime? What would take it to the level of where it could be prosecuted in that way? Now, of course, we have to emphasize it again - all parties have rights in this case and these individuals have to be considered innocent until theyre proven guilty in a court of law - but what would be the threshold that would allow it to be considered a hate crime under the statute?

Mr. DECKER: Im not a prosecutor, but generally there has to be some showing of animus based on the protected class, in this case disability, to rise to a hate crime. But one of the things thats so important about the new federal hate crimes bill is it does keep pressure on local law enforcement officials and the criminal justice system to take this case seriously and prosecute it.

If it is being prosecuted adequately, and so far it sounds like theres a good deal of attention, then the need to raise it to a level of hate crime might not be as essential as opposed to a variety of other situations where local authorities just are reluctant to get involved, the concern that the person with disability might not be a good witness or not be able to withstand the rigors of a criminal prosecution, and so just walk away from egregious situations.

MARTIN: And Sadie, its been reported that the lawyer for one of the men who's been arrested in this case is saying that his client - its Ricky Smerns(ph), is it?

Ms. GURMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: Is also of diminished mental capacity. Do you know whether thats true and have you talked to anybody else who says that thats true?

Ms. GURMAN: You know, I havent heard about that but I havent heard specifically about his mental capacity, but I do know that of the defendants he is the one with the most extensive criminal record and a lot of people in his life have filed protection from abuse orders against him, you know, to keep him from contacting them. So of the defendants, he seems to have the most checkered past, but I dont know much about his mental capacity.

MARTIN: And I take your point (unintelligible) but Curtis, what if that is the case? What if that is the case that one of the defendants in this case also is of diminished mental capacity? Does that affect how this case would be prosecuted going forward as a hate crime?

Mr. DECKER: I don't believe so. I certainly, the law, you know, allows for defenses based on mental capacity and many people use that in a variety of situations. What's important here, I think, is to focus on the fact that this was a person with a disability who had a horrific set of experiences and we need to take her life and her experiences seriously and move forward. You know, the criminal justice system, I think, will sort out, you know, what the defenses would be when the perpetrators are actually brought forward.

MARTIN: Well, they're clearly taking it seriously. I guess the question becomes what takes it from a level of being an awful just terrible situation, where clearly wrong was done to a human being, or a human being was brutalized to a point where it called for the attention of the federal authorities? Because clearly the intention of a hate crimes law is to make a statement about crimes that are especially egregious to the social fabric.

Mr. DECKER: I agree and I think the hate crime bill law does, I think, have several purposes. One is exactly that, to sort of, you know, tell us as a community that there are people who have animus towards different protective classes. But secondly, I think it is also to keep the pressure on the law enforcement community at the local level, to pursue these claims and value the lives of these people and what they've experienced. As I said, if that is happening, the need for a federal intervention is less. Now, the hate crime bill also provides resources to local law enforcement agencies and actually funding to help them, you know, prosecute these cases, which can be very difficult.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about a very disturbing case out of Pittsburgh where a young woman who was believed to be and reported to have been - by her family - to be of diminished mental capacity, is alleged to have been murdered in a truly demeaning and horrible way by a group of six people, three men and three women. We're speaking about this with Curtis Decker, the executive director of the Disability Rights Network, here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio and Sadie Gurman, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who has been reporting on this case. Sadie, what has been the reaction to this in Pittsburgh and in the surrounding area?

Ms. GURMAN: I think people are really horrified and sickened and outraged by this. I've never had such an outpouring of readers who have called me to say that, you know, that I made them cry with this story. And that this is a really truly terrible story. And I think that one of the most shocking things about it is just that she was, you know, that she had a mental disability and I feel, like, people really feel as though she was taken advantage of. And she was -you know, she really trusted this people according to her family. So, I think everyone is fairly shocked by this.

MARTIN: Tell me more about that. You were able to speak to the victim's sister. What did she say about the young woman?

Ms. GURMAN: Well, the victim's sister, she talked to us during a press conference. So, she just shared a little bit of insight into her mental disability. She didn't say exactly what her sister suffered from, but her relatives have said that she had the capacity of an adolescent, like maybe 12 to 14 year old. But other than that, she said, you know, her family is from a town a little bit away from where this actually happened. And I guess the victim was splitting her time between there and Greensburg, where this took place. And she was apparently acquainted with these people. And her family -but her family didn't know that much about her relationship with them because she kept that part of her life fairly secretive according to her sister. But...

MARTIN: But her family was of the impression that Jennifer considered these people her friends.

Ms. GURMAN: That's right. They said that, you know, while they recognized some of the names of the defendants, they didn't really know how close she actually was with them. Now, police have said that she had some kind of relationship with Mr. Smyrnes, but it wasn't a long term type of relationship. They think it was a recent acquaintance. So, that's something that everybody is pretty curious about.

MARTIN: There has been additional reporting by other (unintelligible) outlets have reported that one of the defendants was there was another individual who lives in the home with these people until he left or was kicked out, and he reported that this - one of the defendants was sort of pressuring her sexually. And Curtis, the reason I'm bringing this up is that it comes - brings to mind another case out of West Virginia, a disturbing case where the young woman survived, but was held captive for some period of time, by also a group of people who seem to have been experimenting with her sexually.

She was able to escape. Authorities were called. This case was prosecuted. All the individuals involved have been convicted and are serving sentences. Many of them pleaded guilty to this. But it seems like they were experimenting with this woman sexually. And I wanted to know is - if your network has determined whether there's some there are other examples of this, where people feel, for whatever reason, that they are allowed to act out with people with disabilities in ways that they might not do with someone else.

Mr. DECKER: Well, unfortunately, my system which has a program in every state and territory has seen a fair amount of abuse, neglect, exploitation, and violence. And I do hope that the positive side of this story is further attention of the range of violence that people with disability experience in a variety of ways. On the other hand, I hope the story doesn't lead to a sense that this - people with disabilities need to be more segregated or more confined and protected in a very sort of patronizing way. We've worked very hard in the disability community to bring people into the community.

Now, that does bring with it certain risks. And so, it's a challenge for us to provide the supports and protections for individual disabilities who live in the community so they can have full rich lives. But that will definitely mean exposure to people who have bad motives, will put them at risk that they maybe not have had in the past when they were in a more segregated setting. So, I hope this doesn't lead to that. But I appreciate the work of the press here in bringing to light something that we've seen fairly rampantly across the country.

MARTIN: Hmm. But you don't think it's necessarily been taken as seriously as it could have been until now. Why do you think that might be?

Mr. DECKER: Well, I think, again, several things. I think sometimes people just assume this happens with people with disabilities because they can't protect themselves. I think we've not really thought of abuse and exploitation at the same level. I mean, I think it is part of a devaluing of people with disabilities' lives in this country that we're working very hard to establish. And, you know, there certainly are the arguments that people with disabilities are easier targets. So, there's a variety of factors, very complex. And so what's really important for us is to make sure that everybody understands that these people have a right to live in an integrated way, but also deserve some support and protection.

MARTIN: Hmm. Well, thank you for that. Curtis Decker is the executive director of the Disability Rights Network. He was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. We were also joined by Sadie Gurman. She's a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She's been following this case. We hope you'll keep us posted, Sadie. She joined us from her office. Sadie, keep us posted if you will.

Ms. GURMAN: I sure will.

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MARTIN: Coming up next: let's be honest. There are plenty of countries you expect to see at the Winter Olympics - Canada, Russia, Switzerland - and then there are some that are, well, unexpected. We'll surprise you with the details. That's next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm Michel Martin.

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