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When federal jurors in Boston imposed the death penalty on admitted killer Gary Lee Sampson this week, one of them also created a mystery.
In the deliberation room, a juror was seen slipping a letter into the envelope that was intended for the judge. What's in that letter is still not known. And now, Sampson's attorneys are asking to see it.
The question from the jury room came at 12:20 p.m. Monday, and it floored the courtroom. It wasn't a question about reaching the verdict; the jurors had apparently already decided that, until the letter was spotted.
When the jury eventually came back with their verdict at 1:45 p.m., they would recommend the death penalty for the carjacking that resulted in the killing of Jonathan Rizzo. And they would give Sampson life imprisonment for the carjacking that led to his killing of Philip McCloskey.
But what the jury wanted to know at noontime was what to do about the juror and the letter. The court was stumped. No one could recall such a thing ever happening before.
"In this jury deliberation process, jurors are not allowed, not encouraged, not authorized to stick notes of any kind in along with the verdict," said attorney Thomas Hoopes, of the law firm Libby Hoopes. He is not connected to the case, but he is a criminal law expert with the Massachusetts Bar Association.
So what to do about the letter? On Monday, and not yet knowing the verdicts, the defense argued before the court that at least the judge, if not the lawyers as well, should read what was in it. The judge was not so inclined and sealed the letter without reading it.
The defense wanted the unknown juror to be allowed to be heard.
"The mere reliance on a verdict form is not adequate," defense attorney Michael Burt argued.
The prosecutor, Zachary Hafer, was insisting that "the jurors speak through the verdict and only through the verdict." Guilty, not guilty, I agree, I disagree.
For all anyone knows it could have been a complaint about the coffee or finding a parking spot.
The defense motion to see what's in that letter speculates that the juror might be disclosing that coercive tactics were used to reach a unanimous verdict for death. Darkly, the defense reminds the court that two previous death penalty sentences from Sampson's 2003 trial were overturned on account of juror misconduct.
"When you have a murder, the courtroom is always different," Hoopes said. "When you have a death penalty case it makes it even more complicated."
When a jury comes back with its verdicts and after the verdicts are read out loud, the jurors can individually be polled to make sure they all agree.
The defense argued that every juror has the right to make "any statement they want to make" including whatever was in the letter.
"No, no, no," prosecutor Hafer said. "That's nuts," the jurors can only talk about the verdict.
At 1:45 the jurors came back. The verdicts were read out loud, and then the jurors were polled, one by one. Not one said anything other than "I agree." Whoever wrote the letter said nothing about it.
Now the defense wants it opened. The prosecution opposes, calling the contents superfluous.
Hoopes is betting, a small bet.
"Somebody is going to see it at some point," he said. "Here's the reason: Judges, courts really like to put finality on murder cases. So they're going to really, really like putting finality on a death penalty case."
Judge Leo Sorokin will decide whether he opens the mail he didn't before.
This segment aired on January 13, 2017.
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