Friday, December 20, 2013 5:32 pm
Feds again seek death penalty for Mass. killer
By DENISE LAVOIEAP Legal Affairs Writer
Gary Lee Sampson, a drifter from eastern Massachusetts, pleaded guilty to federal charges and was sentenced to death by a jury in the July 2001 slayings of two men in Massachusetts who had picked him up hitchhiking. He also pleaded guilty to separate state charges for killing a man in New Hampshire.
A federal judge threw out the sentence in 2011 in a ruling later upheld by a federal appeals court.
On Friday, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said prosecutors will again seek the death penalty through a new penalty hearing instead of allowing Sampson to serve a life sentence.
Prosecutors said in a court filing that Sampson's lawyers recently presented arguments on why they believe prosecutors should not again seek the death penalty.
"In short, the United States did not find those arguments persuasive, nor is it aware of any other justification for a lesser sentence for Sampson," Assistant U.S. Attorney Zachary Hafer wrote in the memo.
"The United States continues to believe that the 2003 jury, after careful deliberation, reached the correct and just decision as to Sampson's sentence. Justice therefore requires that a jury again determine the appropriate sentence for Sampson."
Prosecutors said they plan to ask for a date for a new penalty hearing during a court status conference scheduled next month.
Sampson's lawyers could not immediately be reached for comment. Messages were left at their offices.
Sampson, who grew up in Abington, pleaded guilty to carjacking and killing Jonathan Rizzo, 19, of Kingston, and Philip McCloskey, 69, of Taunton. He told police he forced both men to drive to secluded spots, assured them he only wanted to steal their cars, then stabbed them repeatedly and slit their throats.
Sampson then fled to New Hampshire, where he broke into a house in Meredith and strangled Robert Whitney, a former city councilor from Concord.
A federal jury in Boston recommended the death penalty after hearing weeks of grisly testimony about the Massachusetts killings. Sampson became the first person sentenced to death in Massachusetts under the federal death penalty law. Massachusetts does not have a state death penalty.
Jonathan Rizzo's father, Michael Rizzo, said he finds it "personally offensive" that the original death penalty sentence was overturned.
"We don't think justice has been upheld," he said. "We know it's going to be emotionally draining, but we feel it's worth our while to make that investment for the next couple of months to get what we think is justice in this case."
Sampson challenged the death penalty, arguing that he was denied the right to have his sentence decided by an impartial jury.
U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf, who presided at the first trial, tossed out the death penalty sentence in 2011, finding that Sampson's constitutional rights were violated after a juror repeatedly lied when answering questions during the jury selection process.
In their court filing Friday, prosecutors asked Wolf to revisit a decision he made in 2010 when the judge found that it was not necessary for him to recuse himself despite a personal relationship with Hafer.
Wolf worked at the same law office as Hafer's father-in-law from 1977 to 1981 and maintains a relationship with Hafer's father-in-law. He also disclosed that he had attended Hafer's wedding and had occasionally given Hafer and his wife career advice.
In the filing, Hafer said that although prosecutors agreed with Wolf's original decision not to recuse himself, they believe Wolf should reconsider.
Michael Rizzo said his family wants Wolf to step down.
"The reason we're having this retrial is because Judge Wolf felt that there was a juror who was not impartial, and I think if we are going to put jurors to an impartiality and unbiased standard, the judge should be held to that same standard," he said.
Wolf declined to comment through his courtroom clerk.