A federal appeals court is considering whether to vacate the murder convictions of a man who died in prison while appealing his death sentence for brutally killing three men in New England more than 20 years ago.
Federal prosecutors and defense lawyers are expected to submit legal briefs this month on the impact of Gary Lee Sampson’s Dec. 21 death on his pending appeal and underlying convictions.
The office of new U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins, which has a deadline to respond to the court order Friday, declined to comment Wednesday, but at least one member of Sampson’s legal team suggested the decision should be fairly straightforward.
Madeline Cohen, a Boulder, Colorado, lawyer, said her late client’s appeal didn’t seek to challenge the legality of his conviction, only the decision to sentence him to death.
“No one is challenging Gary’s conviction,” she said Tuesday. "Gary Sampson never denied responsibility for killing Jonathan Rizzo, Phillip McCloskey, or Robert Whitney. He pled guilty in 2003 and always stood by that guilty plea.”
Cohen argued the case’s lengthy legal proceedings resulted from the federal government’s “relentless pursuit" of a death sentence, even after Sampson became terminally ill. The 62-year-old Abington, Massachusetts, native died at the medical center for federal prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, after years of end-stage liver disease.
Members of Rizzo's family submitted letters to the appeals court Friday strongly opposing the legal review.
Michael Rizzo, Johnathan's father, said he felt “extreme anger and disbelief" that the court would even raise the question after the “mental and physical pain” inflicted on his family through 20 years of legal proceedings, which included a retrial.
“When will all this stop?” added Mary Rizzo, the mother of the 19-year-old college student from Kingston, Massachusetts, in a separate letter. “Sampson’s blatant and bragging confession of his detailed murder of Jonathan will forever haunt me. He pleaded guilty over and over, never once asking for forgiveness. He was an evil man. To think that his conviction might be wiped away is an insult to our family."
In July 2001, Sampson stabbed to death Rizzo and another man who had separately given him rides while he hitchhiked in Massachusetts. He then took Rizzo's stolen car, broke into a home in New Hampshire and strangled to death another man.
Sampson was first condemned to die in 2003, but a judge later granted him a new sentencing trial after finding that a juror at his first trial had lied about her background.
A new jury again sentenced Sampson to death for Rizzo's killing in 2017, but was unable to reach a unanimous decision on his penalty for the killing of McCloskey, a 69-year-old retired pipefitter from Taunton.
Sampson was instead sentenced to life in prison for that slaying. In both car jackings, he took his victims into the woods, tied them up and stabbed them.
Sampson also received a separate life sentence after pleading guilty in the death of Whitney, a 59-year-old he strangled at a home in Meredith, New Hampshire.
Sampson’s lawyers had argued he was brain damaged and mentally ill during the killing spree.