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Ex-wife urges jury to spare Sampson

Testimony angers victims' families

He split up with his pregnant wife just after their honeymoon and never paid child support for their son. Yet four years later, Gary Lee Sampson showed up unexpectedly at his ex-wife's New Hampshire home pretending he wanted to do something nice: trade his sporty blue Volkswagen Jetta for her shabby-looking 10-year-old Mercury Sable.

 

Only the car he was offering wasn't his. It belonged to 19-year-old Jonathan Rizzo, the college student Sampson had carjacked, tied to a tree, and killed several days earlier in Massachusetts.

And although Sampson claimed he wanted to swap cars so that his former wife, Karen Alexander, didn't have to drive their son, who was 3 at the time, around in such an old car, Alexander testified yesterday at Sampson's federal death penalty trial that she now knows he had another motive.

"He wanted to have your car to get away?" asked Assistant US Attorney John Wortmann.

"I understand that," said Alexander, a soft-spoken woman who was called by the defense and told reporters she hoped to persuade jurors to spare Sampson's life.

Sampson, 44, who grew up in Abington, pleaded guilty in September to carjacking and killing Rizzo, of Kingston, and Philip McCloskey, 69, of Taunton, after they picked him up hitchhiking on on different days in July 2001. He faces charges in New Hampshire that he killed Robert "Eli" Whitney, 59, of Penacook, N.H.

Jurors will decide whether Sampson should be executed for the slayings of Rizzo and McCloskey or sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Alexander, 45, of Silver Lake, N.H., who was the fourth of Sampson's five wives, was the only witness to testify that it would have an emotional impact on her if Sampson is executed.

She also told jurors that a 28-year-old New Hampshire woman who suffers from spina bifida had planned to testify that she had a father-daughter type relationship with Sampson but decided against testifying.

"She doesn't want the death penalty," blurted Alexander, in response to questions from one of Sampson's lawyers, David A. Ruhnke.

That testimony infuriated the Rizzo and McCloskey families, who said they had been ordered not to mention the death penalty in their testimony or risk a mistrial.

"Our victim-impact testimony was heavily edited and had to be approved by the judge and the defense," said Rizzo's father, Michael, who wants Sampson executed for the murders. "Now we have a very sleazy circumvention of the rules."

US District Mark L. Wolf ordered jurors to disregard Alexander's reference to the death penalty, adding that, "Nobody would be allowed to express an opinion on that. It's exclusively up to you."

Alexander testified that she met Sampson in 1995 when they were attending Alcoholics Anonymous and described him as happy, personable, compassionate, and romantic. But after she married him in June 1997, he became "explosive" on their honeymoon, she testified.

She said they split up within weeks of the marriage when she found marijuana in his truck and told him he couldn't stay with her unless he got treatment. While acknowledging that Sampson has never paid child support for their 5-year-old son, Hunter, who is autistic, and has rarely seen him, she said he has telephoned her to provide "emotional" support.

Alexander said she tried to get Sampson's mother, Charlotte, to testify on his behalf, but she cried and said it was "not good for her health" to talk about the case.

Outside the courtroom, Alexander said she plans to keep her son's surname as Sampson because, "I fell in love with this man. You can't just erase what you had. I'm not embarrassed. I had a good relationship."

After the defense rested its case yesterday, prosecutors called a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Welner, to rebut another psychiatrist's statement that Sampson suffers from bipolar disorder and was unable to stop himself from killing his three victims because he was "significantly impaired."

Welner testified that Sampson is not bipolar but suffers from anti-social personality disorder, alcohol dependence, and cocaine abuse. He told jurors he had concluded that Sampson was not significantly impaired at the time of the murders and had no remorse about what he had done.

During cross-examination, Ruhnke grilled Welner about how much he charged the government for his services in the case. Welner acknowledged that his fee for yesterday alone is $4,000 and he billed the government $111,999 for 19 days of work on the Sampson case.

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