Prosecutors seek to dismiss killer's appeal
BOSTON -- After killing three people in Massachusetts and New Hampshire during a weeklong crime rampage, Gary Lee Sampson turned himself in to police, confessed and pleaded guilty to the crimes.
A federal jury in Boston recommended that he be put to death for the two Massachusetts slayings -- the first person sentenced to death in the state under federal death penalty law.
Seven years later, Sampson's new attorneys are asking a judge to set aside his conviction and death sentence. They argue that his former lawyers did not give jurors enough information about his troubled background.
U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf has scheduled a hearing this week on a request by prosecutors to dismiss Sampson's motion for a new trial. Sampson's lawyers are asking for a full hearing so they can present evidence on their claims that the jury did not get a full picture of his life.
Sampson's motion argues that his trial lawyers focused on his acceptance of responsibility for the killings, but never adequately investigated witnesses and documents "that establish brain damage and mental disease far greater than that presented at trial."
Sampson's trial lawyers declined to comment on his claims.
His new lawyers say if the jury had received more information about his mental illness and childhood trauma, "it is reasonably probable that a unanimous verdict would not have been returned."
Sampson's death sentence was upheld by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal.
Prosecutors call Sampson's latest appeal "a dedicated effort by those who consider the death penalty unjust" to "disparage years of toil by three experienced and able lawyers who provided Gary Lee Sampson with a carefully considered and dedicated defense in the face of enormous obstacles surrounding his heinous crimes."
A drifter who was raised in Abington, Sampson admitted he carjacked Jonathan Rizzo, 19, of Kingston, and Philip McCloskey, 69, of Taunton, after each man picked him up hitchhiking. He said 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 told police he then fled to New Hampshire, broke into a house in Meredith and strangled Robert Whitney, 58. He received a life sentence in that killing.
McCloskey, the patriarch of a large, close-knit family, went missing in late July 2001. Several days later, his body was found in a secluded area in Marshfield. He had been stabbed 24 times.
Three days after McCloskey disappeared, Rizzo never made it home from his summer job at a Plymouth restaurant. His body was found three days later, tied to a tree in the woods behind an Abington restaurant. He had been stabbed 15 times, and his own socks had been used as a gag.
During the sentencing trial, Sampson's lawyers said he suffered from bipolar disorder, damage to the frontal lobe of his brain, drug and alcohol addiction and was abused as a child.
But prosecutors said the killings were so cruel and depraved that Sampson deserved to die.
The jury agreed, and Wolfe ordered that Sampson be executed in New Hampshire, which has a state capital murder law but has not executed anyone since 1939. It's been more than half a century since anyone has been executed in Massachusetts, which does not have a state death penalty.
David Hoose, a Springfield defense attorney with experience in death penalty cases, said motions such as the one filed by Sampson --known as a "2255 petition" -- typically contain claims that trial lawyers were ineffective and do not attempt to re-litigate issues that were brought up during a direct appeal.
Hoose, who is not involved in the Sampson case, said Wolf will have to decide if the claims made by Sampson's lawyers require a full hearing.
"He's going to have to make a determination as to whether the allegations made, if true, could have made a difference" to the jury, Hoose said.
Michael Rizzo, Jonathan Rizzo's father, recalled sitting through the trial and hearing Sampson's lawyers described as the best in the business. He called Sampson's latest appeal "a mockery of justice."
"It's sort of an affront that he would be allowed to do this and suggest that they were incompetent, in effect," Rizzo said.
U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, whose office prosecuted Sampson, said he hopes the jury's unanimous decision imposing the death penalty will be upheld "and that justice will be served and closure reached for the sake of the victims and their families."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)