Friday May 11, 2012

BOSTON -- Prosecutors may appeal an order to toss out the death penalty sentence against a man convicted of killing three people in Massachusetts and New Hampshire during a 2001 crime spree, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf granted a request from prosecutors to appeal his ruling in October. In that ruling, Wolf found that Gary Sampson was denied his constitutional right to have his sentence decided by an impartial jury and was entitled to a new hearing on the sentence. Wolf entered a formal order vacating the death sentence Thursday.

Wolf said prosecutors could appeal his ruling to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, rejecting arguments by Sampson’s lawyers that prosecutors could not appeal until the second sentencing hearing was completed.

"Among other things, a second hearing to determine whether Sampson should live or die will be lengthy, expensive, and anguishing for the families of Sampson’s victims. It is, therefore, appropriate to give the First Circuit the opportunity to decide whether the decision that a second sentencing hearing is legally required is now appealable," Wolf wrote.

Christina DiIorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, said the government will appeal.

Sampson, a drifter who grew up in Abington, pleaded guilty to carjacking two Massachusetts men after each picked him up hitchhiking. He said he forced Jonathan Rizzo, 19, of Kingston, and Philip McCloskey, 69, of Taunton, to secluded spots, assured them he only wanted to steal their cars, then stabbed them repeatedly and slit their throats.

He then fled to New Hampshire, broke into a house in Meredith and strangled a third man. Sampson pleaded guilty in state court in New Hampshire in the killing of Robert Whitney, 58, of Concord, a former city councilor. Sampson received a life sentence in Whitney’s death.

A federal jury in Boston recommended the death penalty.

In his ruling dismissing the death penalty, Wolf found that one of the jurors had intentionally and repeatedly answered questions dishonestly in an attempt to avoid talking about subjects that were painful to her. For example, she never disclosed that her husband had a rifle and had threatened to shoot her, that she had ended her marriage because of her husband’s substance abuse and that her daughter had served time in prison because of a drug problem.

Wolf said that if the woman had disclosed those things during jury selection, the court would have found there was a "high risk" that after listening to the evidence at Sampson’s trial, her decision on whether to sentence Sampson to death could have been influenced by her life experiences.

Sampson was the first person sentenced to death in Massachusetts under the federal death penalty law. Massachusetts does not have a state death penalty and has not executed anyone in more than half a century.