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Sampson jury hears pleas for life, death

The prosecutor's voice cracked as he described the viciousness of Gary Lee Sampson's murders and the impact on two families who will be spending Christmas huddled around a gravestone instead of a Christmas tree.

 

Throughout his closing argument yesterday in US District Court in Boston, Assistant US Attorney Frank Gaziano had a poster board behind him with smiling photographs of Sampson's three victims. At one point, Gaziano showed a photo of the body of 19-year-old Jonathan Rizzo, slumped to the ground, his hands tied to a tree, the gag still in his mouth.

The prosecutor described Sampson as a cunning and manipulative con man who deliberately killed Rizzo and 69-year-old Philip McCloskey so he could steal their cars. He said Sampson deliberately chose vulnerable victims: the baby-faced, trusting Rizzo and the elderly McCloskey.

Gaziano scoffed at defense arguments that Sampson was unable to control himself, noting that he didn't try to kill the 240-pound former football player who gave him a ride on the night he killed Rizzo. "The defendant conforms his conduct when he wants to," Gaziano told jurors. "He attacks on his own terms when it's to his advantage. These are the acts of a vicious predator, not a mentally ill person . . . The facts and the law in this case compel you to find that the defendant, Gary Lee Sampson, should be sentenced to death."

But in his final appeal to jurors in Sampson's federal death penalty case, defense lawyer David A. Ruhnke said Sampson was a sick man who would not harm anyone else if he is sentenced to life in prison, rather than executed.

"Mr. Sampson is a mentally ill loser who will never hurt anybody again," Ruhnke told jurors, who have heard 18 days of testimony. "Sentence him to life in prison."

Ruhnke cast the jurors as one-step-removed executioners, but executioners nonetheless.

"The government doesn't ask you to come for Gary Sampson at midnight or to lead him to the chamber or start the poison pumping, but they do ask you to make that happen," Ruhnke said.

The final arguments began with the prosecution, as Gaziano reminded jurors how Sampson had abducted the two men at knifepoint after they picked him up hitchhiking on separate days in July 2001. He then marched them into the woods, tied them up, and stabbed them to death.

Flashing a photograph of Rizzo's crumpled body, tied to a tree in Abington, Gaziano told jurors to "never forget" that it was Sampson who duped the college student into believing that he would leave him unharmed in the woods and planned only to steal his car. He sprayed Rizzo with bug repellant before stabbing him 15 times.

Calling Sampson a "cold, manipulative, and vicious killer," Gaziano noted that Sampson killed Rizzo with the same razor-sharp Remington knife that he had used three days earlier, on July 24, 2001, to stab McCloskey 24 times, after tying him up in the woods in Marshfield.

Sampson, 44, who grew up in Abington, pleaded guilty in September to carjacking and killing McCloskey, a retired gas company worker from Taunton, and Rizzo, a college sophomore from Kingston. He faces additional charges in New Hampshire in a break-in and the killing of Robert "Eli" Whitney, 59, of Penacook, N.H.

Jurors will receive instructions about the law today from US District Judge Mark L. Wolf and then are to begin deliberating on whether Sampson should be executed or sentenced to life in prison without parole for the slayings of Rizzo and McCloskey. Sampson may be sentenced to death only if the verdict is unanimous. If jurors can't agree on a verdict, Sampson will be sentenced to life in prison.

In his final appeal to the jury, Ruhnke cited testimony from defense witnesses that Sampson was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child, began drinking alcohol when he was 11, and was using drugs a short time later. A neuropsychiatrist called by the defense said she diagnosed Sampson as suffering from bipolar disorder and concluded that he knew right from wrong but was unable to stop himself from killing because of a signficant mental impairment.

A forensic psychiatrist called by the government testified that Sampson wasn't bipolar but suffers from antisocial personality disorder and is able to control his conduct.

Ruhnke also focused on Sampson's call to the FBI's Boston office on July 23, 2001, the day before his killing spree began, when he offered to surrender on charges he faced for allegedly robbing five banks in North Carolina. But agents never showed up to arrest Sampson, and it was later disclosed that an FBI clerk had disconnected the call.

The government countered that Sampson had ample opportunity to surrender to authorities, driving by several police stations during the series of killings.

Ruhnke urged jurors to conclude that Sampson had accepted responsiblity for his crimes, because he called 911 to surrender after breaking into a Vermont ski lodge on July 31, 2001. He confessed to the murders, led police to Rizzo's body, and later pleaded guilty.

Yet Gaziano told jurors that Sampson's confessions, offering gruesome details of his murders in a matter-of-fact tone, were evidence that he "relished" the killings and has no remorse.

The prosecution argued that Sampson will pose a danger to other inmates or guards if sentenced to life in prison, citing testimony earlier this week from a deputy federal marshal who said Sampson threatened to kill him Dec. 1 during an angry confrontation. He said Sampson was upset because he was transported to the courthouse from the Essex County jail in Middleton on a day when he didn't need to be in court.

Sampson spent more than 16 years in prison in New Hampshire and Massachusetts for a variety of offenses, including burglary and theft, before his arrest on murder charges. Prison records indicate he has been caught with weapons and attempted to escape from a New Hampshire prison in 1988.

But Ruhnke argued that the records indicate that Sampson never attacked another inmate but was attacked himself.

"It is more likely that Mr. Sampson himself will be the victim of violence in prison than the other way around," Ruhnke said.

With the case going to jurors just before Christmas, some lawyers have questioned whether a jury would sentence Sampson to death this time of year.

Gaziano turned that sentiment on its head, reminding jurors of testimony from McCloskey's children and Rizzo's parents and younger brother. The prosecutor recounted 17-year-old Nicholas Rizzo's testimony about how the boy used to rush into the room of his brother Jonathan on Christmas morning to wake him up so they could open their presents. The lawyer's voice cracked as he told jurors: "Now they go to a graveyard. Instead of huddling around a Christmas tree, they huddle around a gravestone."

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