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Feb. 2015 date set for Gary Lee Sampson death penalty hearings

A federal judge has set a new sentencing trial date of February 2015 for Gary Lee Sampson, the former Abington resident who could face the death penalty for carjacking and killing two people within days in 2001. He then killed a third person in New Hampshire that same week.

US District Court Senior Judge Mark L. Wolf said at a hearing Tuesday that he is confident that a new team of defense lawyers has received and will continue to receive enough information about the history of the case and that there will not be any significant legal developments leading up to the sentencing trial date.

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“It’s going to be important to work toward that date, and I know the parties will,” the judge said.

Sampson, now 54, had already been sentenced to death by a jury in 2003. However, Wolf later vacated that ruling after he found that one of the jurors lied about her family’s history with drugs and law enforcement. The judge said he would have excluded her if he had known, and the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld that decision last year.

Federal prosecutors, with input from the families of Sampson’s victims, agreed to pursue the death penalty again. Sampson has already pleaded guilty to his crimes, but a jury must decide whether to hand out a death sentence. Under federal court rules, a sentencing trial is separate from a trial that determines guilt or innocence.

Assistant US Attorney Zachary Hafer had urged Wolf to set a trial date quickly, saying, “The crime victims, Mr. Sampson’s victims, have rights” against delaying the trial.

Sampson had pleaded guilty to the carjacking and killing of Jonathon Rizzo, a 19-year-old college student from Kingston, and Philip McCloskey, 69, a father from Taunton.

He also killed Robert “Eli” Whitney, 59, of New Hampshire that same week, and was convicted of the murder in that state.

Sampson’s lawyers said he suffers from end stage liver disease and should be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

In a two-hour hearing Tuesday, Wolf set several deadlines to establish a schedule for the case: by March 31, for instance, prosecutors must file documents specifying what factors they plan to present to show why Sampson deserves the death penalty.

Also, by May 23, the defense team must submit a final request asking the Department of Justice to reconsider seeking the death penalty in the case, based on Sampson’s deteriorating medical condition since the initial determination was made a decade ago.

Wolf, meanwhile, questioned whether the defense team will argue that Sampson suffered from a mental illness at the time of the killings and whether that issue will play out at trial.

The judge said he may use his authority to order a mental health evaluation to determine whether Sampson is mentally competent to stand trial and assist his defense team, which he called a technical legal issue that should be resolved now, rather than on appeal.

Lawyers for Sampson and federal prosecutors said there is no need for a new evaluation, but they indicated the judge may want to interview Sampson himself.

“I don’t know how . . . there would not be reasonable cause to be concerned, reasonable cause not to want to have an evaluation,” the judge said, adding, “I am concerned that whatever his condition may have been in 2003 may have deteriorated after being locked up for 10 years.”

The judge did not set a new hearing, but asked lawyers to file arguments on the issue by the end of April.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at MValencia@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter MiltonValencia.
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