Support the news

Mass. Death Penalty Retrial Halted In Carjack Deaths

This article is more than 5 years old.

It's been 14 years since Gary Lee Sampson carjacked and killed two Massachusetts men, 12 years since a jury condemned him to die and almost four years since a federal judge overturned his death sentence.

Sampson's sentencing retrial had been scheduled to begin next week but has been delayed indefinitely as prosecutors decide whether to appeal the judge's refusal to recuse himself from the case. Judge Mark Wolf, who presided over Sampson's first trial, has refused to step down.

Prosecutors cited Wolf's professional relationship with an inmates' rights advocate, James Gilligan, who may testify for the defense during Sampson's retrial. Wolf moderated a film society panel that included Gilligan last year. Before the panel discussion, Wolf hosted Gilligan for supper at his rental home on Martha's Vineyard.

Gary Sampson, in this 2001 file photo (AP)
Gary Sampson, in this 2001 file photo (AP)

Wolf said he didn't realize then that Gilligan had filed an expert affidavit in 2010 as part of Sampson's petition for a new trial. After Wolf learned in June that Sampson's lawyers decided to retain Gilligan as a potential expert witness at the retrial, he asked both sides if they saw a need for him to step down.

Prosecutors argued that a reasonable person could question Wolf's impartiality and therefore he should recuse himself. Sampson's lawyers said there was no reason for Wolf to step down.

Wolf has given prosecutors until Oct. 13 to let him know whether they plan to appeal his decision to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He said he can't set a new date for Sampson's trial until the issue is resolved.

Sampson, a drifter who grew up in Abington, pleaded guilty to federal charges in the 2001 carjacking and killing of Jonathan Rizzo, a 19-year-old college student from Kingston, and Philip McCloskey, a 69-year-old retiree from Taunton. 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.

Separately, Sampson pleaded guilty in state court in New Hampshire in the killing of Robert Whitney, 58, and received a life sentence.

He was the first person sentenced to death in Massachusetts under the federal death penalty law. This year, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was also sentenced to death. Massachusetts abolished its state death penalty in 1984.

In his written decision, Wolf implied that prosecutors may be trying to pick a judge they believe may be more sympathetic to their death penalty case against Sampson. He noted that a relative of one of Sampson's victims has publicly criticized him, particularly after he overturned the death sentence in 2011 based on misconduct by one of the jurors at his trial.

Wolf didn't identify the man, but Rizzo's father, Michael Rizzo, has been openly critical of Wolf, particularly his decision to vacate the death sentence.

"It's clear it's been on his agenda for six years ... to do everything he could to ensure this is overturned and did not happen on his watch," Rizzo said after Wolf's ruling.

Rizzo said he is disappointed that Wolf has decided not to recuse himself from the case.

"He comes to the conclusion that a regular person wouldn't be questioning his impartiality, and I find that impossible to believe," Rizzo said.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz declined to comment on whether prosecutors will appeal.

Christopher Dearborn, a law professor at Suffolk University, said he thinks it's unlikely the appeals court would order Wolf to step down.

"Just because you interact with somebody one time in a social setting or a professional engagement doesn't in and of itself make you partial," Dearborn said. "I think that's really stretching common sense. It happens all the time."


Support the news