BOSTON (AP) — A federal appeals court on Thursday confirmed the decision to throw out the death penalty sentence against a man who pleaded guilty to killing two people in Massachusetts during a weeklong crime spree in two states and ordered a new trial to determine if he should be put to death.
The court upheld a lower court ruling that Gary Lee Sampson was denied his constitutional right to have his sentence decided by an impartial jury after a juror intentionally and repeatedly lied when answering questions during the jury selection process. The appeals court also found that inaccurate comments from two other jurors had no significant impact on Sampson’s sentence.
A jury was convened after Sampson’s guilty plea to determine if he should be sentenced to death.
A court hearing after the trial revealed that a juror did not want to disclose that her ex-husband was abusive and had threatened her with a firearm before she divorced him. The court hearing also found that the woman did not reveal that her daughter was fired from her job and was imprisoned for theft and had become a cocaine addict.
“Few accoutrements of our criminal justice system are either more fundamental or more precious than the accused’s right to an impartial jury. That right is threatened when — as in this case — juror dishonesty occurs,” Judge Bruce Selya wrote for a three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
Sampson, a drifter who was raised in Abington, pleaded guilty to federal charges in the carjacking and killing of two Massachusetts men — Jonathan Rizzo, a 19-year-old college student from Kingston, and Philip McCloskey, 69, of Taunton — in July 2001 after each picked him up hitchhiking. 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.
He then fled to New Hampshire, broke into a house in Meredith and strangled a third man. Sampson pleaded guilty in a 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 after hearing weeks of gruesome testimony about the Massachusetts killings. Sampson was the first person sentenced to death in Massachusetts under the federal death penalty law. Massachusetts, which does not have a death penalty, has not executed anyone in more than half a century.
Still, Sampson challenged the death penalty, arguing that he was denied the right to have his sentence decided by an impartial jury because three jurors had falsely answered questions designed to show whether they were suitable to sit on the panel.
The court found that truthful answers by one of the jurors — identified as Juror C — would have resulted in her being excluded from the jury. However, a hearing concluded that inaccuracies contained in responses by two other jurors were unintentional and did not justify setting aside the results of the penalty-phase hearing.
Sampson’s public defenders declined to comment.
“We are disappointed in the decision,” U.S. District Attorney Carmen Ortiz said. “Over the next several weeks, we will meet with the victims’ families and review our options. We remain committed, however, to seeing that justice is done in this case.”
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.