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A drifter from Massachusetts whose death sentence was overturned in the carjack killings of two men will have a second trial next February to determine a new sentence.
U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf, who presided at the first sentencing trial of Gary Lee Sampson in 2003, on Tuesday set a date of Feb. 17 for Sampson's sentencing re-trial.
Sampson, who grew up in Abington, pleaded guilty in the 2001 killings of Jonathan Rizzo, 19, of Kingston, and Philip McCloskey, 69, of Taunton, during a weeklong crime spree in which he also admitted killing a third man, Robert "Eli" Whitney, in New Hampshire.
Since he entered a guilty plea, the trial was only to determine his sentence, not his guilt. Jurors hearing the case in Boston recommended the death penalty under the federal carjacking statute. Sampson was sentenced to death, but in 2011, Wolf overturned that sentence after finding that one of the jurors had repeatedly lied about her background during the jury selection process.
A new jury will now be chosen to decide whether Sampson should be put to death.
During the trial, prosecutors are expected to present evidence about the brutality of the killings to try to convince jurors that Sampson deserves to be executed. Sampson's attorneys are expected to present evidence of so-called "mitigating factors" in an attempt to convince jurors that Sampson should be sentenced to life in prison instead.
Sampson told police he forced both Rizzo and McCloskey to drive to secluded areas, assured them he only wanted their cars, then stabbed them repeatedly and slit their throats.
On Tuesday, Wolf scheduled the second sentencing trial, but said he is considering ordering an evaluation to determine whether Sampson is mentally competent to stand trial.
Both prosecutors and Sampson's defense team say they believe Sampson is competent and has been assisting his lawyers. But Wolf said he is concerned that Sampson may have some underlying mental health issues.
"I'm concerned that whatever his condition was in 2002, it may have deteriorated after being locked up for 10 years," Wolf said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Zachary Hafer said that over the last decade, prosecutors had not found any evidence of a competency issue.
William McDaniels, one of Sampson's lawyers, said Sampson has been cooperating with his defense team and that he did not see the need for a competency evaluation.
"We don't see reasonable cause for it," McDaniels said.
But Wolf said he has a duty to determine whether Sampson is competent and said he is considering bringing Sampson to court in Boston from a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., to question him before he makes a decision on whether to order an evaluation.
Wolf said that if Sampson were sentenced to death after a second trial, the prospect of having to have a third trial because of a later contention that he wasn't competent "is truly horrifying."
Sampson's lawyers objected to the trial date, saying they need until at least the fall of 2015 to prepare. But Wolf agreed with the February date sought by prosecutors.
"The crime victims, Mr. Sampson's victims, have rights," Hafer said.