He was sentenced to death, now convicted killer Gary Lee Sampson could get a new trial.
Ten years after Sampson plead guilty to murdering three people during a week-long spree in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, the same federal judge who presided over his sentencing has thrown out the jury's death penalty decision.
WBUR's David Boeri joined Morning Edition Friday morning to explain this latest development. For Sampson, it all comes down to the Sixth Amendment.
Bob Oakes: Remind us about the Sampson case and how it came to this point?
David Boeri: Three despicable, contemptible, cowardly murders in the month of July 2001, in which Sampson is picked up, he was hitchhiking older man, he is picked up, he murders him. He picks up a college kid and murders him, then drives to New Hampshire and murders a third man as well.
Even the judge who presided over the trial, Mark Wolf, said that if anyone ever deserved the death penalty, it was Gary Sampson. But now the judge has said he deserves a new trial.
What happened, why did he grant a new trial?
The 6th Amendment guarantees everybody in a criminal trial to an impartial jury. When you think about one person being partisan, being a requisite for setting aside a trial. And then you consider that the jury is deciding whether someone is going to live or die, you understand the importance of that.
And post-trial evidence shows that there was one juror who falsely and deliberately falsely answered questions to the jury pool before they sat the juror. She had been victimized by her husband, threatened with a gun, in a scene that matched some of the description of what happened to Sampson's victims. She was embarrassed, the judge later said she was ashamed, she didn't reveal it. But the judge said, accordingly, Sampson must be granted a new trial at which 12 truly impartial jurors will have to decide whether he should live or die.”
Sampson was sentenced seven years ago. How did the information about this juror come out now?
As you know, post-death penalty convictions are followed very intensely. And one of the standard procedures by defense attorneys across the country is to check the jurors' backgrounds, to go back and do background checks and then compare them with the questionnaires that are filled in by the jurors before the trial. And here they found what they were looking for — they found actually three instances that Judge Wolf ruled that this one particular juror, they had met the standard of proof and they should have a new trial.
There has been some shock around the region about this, how are people reacting?
As you would expect in such an emotional case, the families of the victims have expressed outrage. Jonathan Rizzo, the college student who was murdered, his father expressed outrage and disgust at Wolf's decision.
And here is the son of Philip McCloskey, the older man of Taunton who was murdered, this is Scott McCloskey of Plymouth, reacting:
There’s no reason for him to get a new trial. It’s absolutely absurd. To put the families through all this again for Gary Sampson, a serial killer.
Now the victims’ families have been championed all along by Michael Sullivan, he is the former U.S. Attorney here. And he has played an extraordinary role. He was a long-time proponent of the death penalty while in the Legislature. He was the district attorney in Plymouth County. And outgoing district attorney Michael Sullivan in these counties sent an advisory request to the then-vacant U.S. Attorney's office, seeking their opinion on whether it should become a federal charge or not. Well, he would fill out that seat in a mere few weeks. He would then answer his own request as U.S. Attorney and say, 'Yes we should federalize it.' That, according to critics, allowed the federal government to skirt around Massachusetts' abolition of the death penalty. So here was Michael Sullivan reacting Thursday:
I feel horrible for the victims’ families. They’ve suffered now going back to 2001, so it’s been over a decade they’ve had to continue to live with this horrible, horrific experience.
What are Sampson's attorneys saying?
They are not talking at this point. However, here is Robert Sheketoff. Sheketoff represented Sampson at the trial. By the way, Sampson had admitted and plead guilty to the murders. So the trial was to simply to decide whether or not he would get the death penalty. Here is Sheketoff:
I mean, does he think it's appropriate for jurors to lie during voire dire are the court to turn its head, once it realizes that that has occurred? Is that what he's in favor of?
And, voir dire, Bob, is the process of jury selection. So what Sheketoff is saying is that Judge Wolf is right because they found somebody who could not be impartial because of the circumstance of her life and she had not come forward. So Sampson was deserving of a new trial.
After the developments of the last 24 hours, what happens now?
A very complicated process here, and it is not clear. On Thursday, the current U.S. Attorney, Carmen Ortiz, said, "We are reviewing the court's order and will examine all our legal options." It is not clear that they have legal options, because on Thursday, in his order, Judge Wolf asking both parties to confer, suggested that his own ruling may not be appealable by the government. And according to previous death penalty cases across the country, he is suggesting, in fact, the government may have to wait until a whole new trial to decide whether or not to appeal this order. This is months out, this is a long, long process. Both sides read Judge Wolf as asking the federal government if they want to drop the appeal and accept life sentence instead of pursuing a death penalty against Gary Sampson.
While all of this is playing out, Gary Sampson, will stay in jail?
He will stay in jail, absolutely. This is a guy, we have to remember, who had nobody come forward, even his family refused to talk to his own defense attorneys. There were no mitigating circumstances, save one, at that trial. The one, that was not enough for the jury, was that he had called the FBI at one point, offered to give himself up, told them where he was, and they hung up on him.
This program aired on October 21, 2011.