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As Massachusetts braces for the upcoming death penalty trial of the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, the state's other death penalty defendant is also heading back to court: Gary Lee Sampson, a drifter from Abington who confessed to carjacking and killing two men in Massachusetts and a third in New Hampshire during a weeklong crime spree.
A federal jury in Boston recommended that Sampson should be executed for his crimes. But the judge who presided at his trial later overturned that sentence, finding that a juror's lies about her background denied Sampson the right to be tried by an impartial jury.
Now Sampson faces a second sentencing trial with a new jury that will be asked to decide if he should be put to death. His re-trial is scheduled to begin in February, a little over a month after the trial of marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is set to begin in the same courthouse.
The Massachusetts Legislature abolished the state's death penalty in 1984, but Sampson was prosecuted under the federal death penalty law and became the first person in Massachusetts sentenced to death under the federal statute.
The families of Sampson's victims, who were stunned when U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf threw out the death sentence in 2011, are fuming over what they see as attempts by Sampson's lawyers and the judge to delay the case indefinitely so Sampson will not be executed. The defense disclosed earlier this year that Sampson, now 55, has advanced cirrhosis of the liver.
"They have said Mr. Sampson is ill and is probably going to die sometime soon, and they are trying to keep this from coming to trial as long as they possibly can," said Michael Rizzo, the father of Jonathan Rizzo, 19, whose body was found behind a restaurant in Abington.
Jonathan Rizzo, a college student at George Washington University, was home for the summer and had just left his job as a waiter at a Plymouth restaurant when he picked up Sampson hitchhiking. In his confession, Sampson told police he assured Rizzo that he only wanted his car and would not hurt him. But instead, he tied him to a tree, repeatedly stabbed him and slit his throat.
Several days earlier, Sampson had hitched a ride from Philip McCloskey, a 69-year-old retired pipe fitter from Taunton. Sampson told police he also promised McCloskey he wouldn't hurt him, but forced him to drive to a secluded spot in Marshfield, where he stabbed him 24 times.
Several days later, Sampson broke into a cabin in Meredith, New Hampshire, and strangled Robert "Eli" Whitney, a former city councilor in Concord.
Sampson continued his crime spree in Vermont, where he carjacked another man and broke into a house. Sampson called police himself and confessed.
In the lead up to Sampson's second sentencing trial, federal prosecutors and Sampson's defense team have clashed bitterly.
Prosecutors asked Wolf to sanction Danalynn Recer, a nationally known death penalty lawyer, for violating the judge's order against communicating with a mental health clinician conducting a competency examination of Sampson. Wolf threatened to remove Recer from the case, but ultimately did not.
Sampson's lawyers tried unsuccessfully to remove two federal prosecutors because they had access to Sampson's mental health records and other information the defense says is confidential.
Prosecutors have also asked the judge to withhold legal fees from the defense for more than 25,000 pages of memos and motions challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty. Prosecutors say those challenges have been settled by earlier U.S. Supreme Court rulings and are merely an attempt to delay the trial.
Sampson's lawyers have not yet responded to the motion and did not return calls and emails seeking comment.
The families of Sampson's victims say they've been frustrated by the long process.
"Nobody is hearing about the families' side of this thing; all we're hearing about is the process and Sampson and his rights," Rizzo said. "It's important that people understand what we have to go through to try to get some semblance of justice."
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