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Death for Sampson

Verdict makes him state's first since 1947 to face execution

By Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / December 24, 2003

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A federal jury yesterday recommended the execution of Gary Lee Sampson, a drifter who confessed to carjacking and killing two men during a weeklong murder spree, marking the first time a verdict for the death penalty has been issued in a federal case in Massachusetts.

The verdict means that Sampson, a 44-year-old from Abington, would become the first person to be executed for a crime in Massachusetts since 1947, unless his sentence is overturned on appeal.

The jury of nine women and three men unanimously rejected Sampson's claim that he was mentally ill when he killed Jonathan Rizzo, 19, of Kingston, and Philip McCloskey, 69, of Taunton. Sampson had confessed that after being picked up by the men on separate days while he was hitchhiking in July 2001, he forced them at knifepoint to drive to secluded areas, where he tied them up and repeatedly stabbed them.

"There was no question, no doubt about it," said jury forewoman Mary E. Dever, who lives south of Boston. "We all, individually, concluded the same thing."

"I can sleep at night with the decision we've made. The only thing that will cause any problems with sleep will be trying to get out of my head the pain the [victims] must have felt when their lives were being taken." A lawyer for Sampson immediately said he would appeal.

The reading of the verdict, which jurors reached after 11 hours of deliberations, set off emotion in the mostly hushed courtroom. Mary Rizzo, mother of one of Sampson's victims, cried as she caressed a picture of her son. Sampson, who showed no emotion throughout the two-month trial, wiped tears from his cheeks.

In a press conference in the lobby of the federal courthouse in Boston, US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said, "A sentence of death is the only appropriate punishment for the crimes that Mr. Sampson has committed."

When asked what broader message the death sentence sends, Sullivan said: "There is no political message here. This message really is about the lives of Philip McCloskey and Jonathan Rizzo."

Sampson's series of murders, which spanned three New England states, jangled nerves of vacationers and residents with its randomness and extreme violence.

Almost all murder cases are tried in state courts. But Sullivan charged Sampson under the federal Death Penalty Act, which was enacted in 1988 and expanded in 1994 to allow federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for some 60 offenses, including carjacking resulting in murder.

It was only the second time prosecutors in Massachusetts have sought the federal death penalty. In the earlier case, a nurse convicted in 2001 of killing four patients in a Northampton veterans' hospital was sentenced to life in prison after jurors couldn't reach a unanimous verdict.

Critics of the federal death penalty accuse Attorney General John D. Ashcroft of using the law to target defendants in states like Massachusetts that lack a capital punishment statute, as part of a bid to nationalize the death penalty. In September, federal prosecutors in Boston announced they would seek the death penalty for two Dorchester gang members charged with murdering a rival at the city's Caribbean carnival two years ago. Massachusetts abolished the death penalty in 1984.

Sampson was the first defendant nationwide in a federal death penalty case to plead guilty and leave his fate to a jury. He pleaded guilty in September to carjacking and killing McCloskey and Rizzo. He faces state charges in New Hampshire for breaking into a home during the same crime spree and killing Robert "Eli" Whitney, 59, of Penacook, N.H.

US District Judge Mark L. Wolf, who scheduled sentencing for Jan. 29, told jurors that since they voted for death, "I will impose that sentence not only because the law requires it but because of my respect for each of you."

Wolf said defense lawyers will be filing motions seeking to reverse the verdict, and he tentatively set a hearing for Jan. 26 to consider their arguments. However, that hearing is expected to be a formality. If Wolf sentences Sampson to death as expected, Sampson would be sent to the federal penitentiary at Terre Haute, Ind.

If he loses his appeal, Sampson will die by lethal injection at the Indiana prison. The appeal process is expected to take years.

Legal analysts have said that Sampson's lawyers faced a difficult challenge in preparing a defense, given the evidence, which included Sampson's matter-of-fact confessions and descriptions of the gruesome slayings.

"These are terrible crimes and the victims have suffered terribly," Sampson attorney David Ruhnke said. "They are very difficult circumstances to look beyond."

Family members of the victims expressed satisfaction with the verdict, though they said it does not erase the pain of their loss.

"We're very happy about this verdict -- there's no question about that -- but we're not going out and celebrating anything here. . . . Our son is still dead, and we will live with that for the rest of our lives," said Jonathan Rizzo's father, Michael.

McCloskey's son, Scott, said that he was relieved by the verdict, but that the chair his father always sat in when the family gathered at Scott's house on Christmas Eve will remain empty tonight. Unmoved by Sampson's tears yesterday, Scott McCloskey said: "It's all about him. He didn't show any remorse for my father or Jonathan or Mr. Whitney. But when it came down to him thinking that he was going to be sentenced to death, now he's sad."

Jurors reported on the verdict forms that none of them believed Sampson was significantly impaired at the time of the slayings or suffered from mental illness.

Only five jurors concluded that Sampson had accepted responsibility for his crimes, and none of them believed he was remorseful.

Jurors, who saw graphic crime scene photos and videos, were unanimous in their agreement that the murders were especially cruel and heinous because of the physical abuse Sampson had inflicted on his victims. Both were stabbed repeatedly and their throats slashed.

Sampson was picked up hitchhiking in Weymouth on July 24, 2001, by McCloskey and forced the elderly man at knifepoint to drive him to Marshfield, where he marched him into the woods, tied him up, and stabbed him 24 times. But Sampson said he was unable to steal McCloskey's van because it had a kill switch. Three days later, Sampson was hitchhiking in Plymouth when Rizzo gave him a ride. Sampson admitted he forced the college freshman to drive him to Abington, where he walked him into the woods, tied him to a tree, and stabbed him 15 times. Sampson stole Rizzo's Jetta and drove it to New Hampshire, where he strangled Whitney on July 30, 2001.

Sampson called police and surrendered the next day after breaking into a ski chalet in Plymouth, VT., and setting off a burglar alarm.

Assistant US Attorney Frank Gaziano, who prosecuted the case along with George Vien and John Wortmann, said, "We're just very happy that justice was served for the victims' families."

Her voice barely audible because she woke up yesterday with laryngitis, Mary Rizzo later told reporters, "I just want to publicly thank the jurors. Every single night I've prayed for them and I will continue to pray that the horrible pictures of Jonathan, Philip, and Mr. Whitney will go out of their heads and they'll remember the beautiful pictures."