Judge orders Sampson executed in N.H.

Scott McCloskey (right) and Mary and Michael Rizzo talked to reporters yesterday after Gary Lee Sampson was sentenced to death.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Scott McCloskey (right) and Mary and Michael Rizzo talked to reporters yesterday after Gary Lee Sampson was sentenced to death.

Editor’s Note: The article is from the Globe archives. It originally ran on Jan. 30, 2004, after Gary Lee Sampson was ordered to be executed for killing three people in 2001.

A federal judge yesterday ordered the execution of Gary Lee Sampson for carjacking and killing an elderly man and a college student who picked him up hitchhiking, making him the first person sentenced to die under the federal death penalty for a crime committed in Massachusetts.

”If anyone deserves the death penalty, you do,” US District Judge Mark L. Wolf told Sampson.

Wolf called the murders of 69-year-old Philip McCloskey of Taunton and 19-year-old Jonathan Rizzo of Kingston, “despicable, inexplicable, and inexcusable.”


The two “were innocent of everything, except showing kindness to a stranger,” he said before sentencing Sampson to death by lethal injection in a New Hampshire execution chamber. If that is “impractical,” the judge said that Sampson can be hanged, which is the way the last person was executed in New Hampshire, in 1939.

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Because Massachusetts has no state death penalty or execution facilities, federal prosecutors asked the judge to order that Sampson’s execution take place in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., where there is a federal death row. But Wolf rejected the request, saying it was too far away for family members of Sampson’s victims, as well as Sampson’s relatives, who might wish to attend the execution.

He also said that New Hampshire was most appropriate because Sampson faces state murder charges there in the killing of a third victim, Robert “Eli” Whitney, 59, of Penacook, N.H., during the same weeklong series of crimes in July 2001.

A group of protesters from Amnesty International and Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty stood outside the federal courthouse throughout the day with signs protesting Sampson’s death sentence. Sampson’s lawyer, David Ruhnke, who notified the court that he is appealing Sampson’s conviction and sentence, urged the judge not to sentence Sampson to death, calling it “state-sponsored homicide.”

After listening to emotional statements about their pain and loss from one of McCloskey’s sons and Rizzo’s parents and grandparents, Sampson, looking as if he had gained about 20 pounds since his conviction on Dec. 23, said, “I’d like to apologize to the families and say that I am sorry for the devastation I have caused them and also to my family.”

AP File
Gary Lee Sampson offered an apology to the families.

But the last-minute apology meant nothing to the McCloskey and Rizzo families, who called it an insincere overture from an evil, cowardly man who manipulated and tormented his victims and then tried to beat the death penalty by faking mental illness.

”It’s probably something he felt like he had to say to make it seem like he was a human being,” said Scott McCloskey, the son of Philip McCloskey. “I just don’t accept it.”

Rizzo’s father, Michael, lashed out at the judge during his victim impact statement, accusing Wolf of treating the Rizzo family “with a complete lack of respect and concern” during the trial and then undermining the jury’s efforts by publicly announcing earlier this week that he disagreed with the jury’s conclusion that Sampson was not mentally ill.

Rizzo said that the judge’s comments that he believed that Sampson suffered from bipolar disorder “sends a very clear message that [the] court does not value or respect the jurors’ efforts.”

Two jurors, who watched Sampson’s sentencing via video in another courtroom, said they were upset by the judge’s remarks because the jury had unanimously rejected defense arguments that Sampson was mentally ill and could not control himself when he killed his victims.


”It just made me feel angry and betrayed,” said juror Susan Costello of Merrimac.

Jurors reviewed Sampson’s medical records and all of the evidence in the case and concluded there was no evidence of mental illness, she said. “I thought he was manipulative and evil.”

Fellow juror Faye Ballou said she thought Sampson was a “sociopath” and “a bad seed,” but not bipolar or suffering from any other mental illness.

Although initially upset by the judge’s remarks, Ballou said she was no longer angry at Wolf after hearing him berate Sampson yesterday. “All is forgiven,” she said.

Yesterday, Wolf briefly touched on Sampson’s mental health, saying: “You may or may not be bipolar. You used crack. But our homeless shelters and prisons are largely populated by people with untreated mental illnesses and learning disabilities who have abused drugs, yet they’re not cruel, multiple murderers.”

Sampson, a drifter who grew up in Abington, pleaded guilty in September to carjacking and killing McCloskey and Rizzo on separate days in July 2001.

Chilling confessions from Sampson that were played at trial revealed in gruesome detail how he got into McCloskey’s car in Weymouth on July 24, 2001, and then forced the older man at knifepoint to drive to Marshfield, where he walked him deep into the woods, tied him up, and stabbed him 24 times.

Three days later, Sampson was hitchhiking in Plymouth when Rizzo gave him a ride. Sampson forced the teenager to drive him to Abington, where he forced him at knifepoint into the woods, tied him to a tree, and stabbed him 15 times.

Sampson drove Rizzo’s Volkswagen Jetta to New Hampshire, where he allegedly broke into a vacation home on Lake Winnipesaukee. When Whitney showed up on July 30, 2001, to mow the lawn, Sampson tied him to a chair and slowly strangled him, prosecutors say. Sampson surrendered to police in Plymouth, Vt., the next day after allegedly carjacking and attempting to kill another man, who escaped.

Michael Rizzo told the judge yesterday that he was upset that the families were kept waiting for hours in the hallway during the trial while Wolf held closed-door sessions with the lawyers, often never revealing the nature of the meetings.

He said he found it “most offensive” when the victims’ families were asked to leave the courtroom while certain graphic evidence was presented so the jury wouldn’t see their reaction. He also expressed dismay the judge had ordered him and his family to move to the other side of the courtroom during the trial so jurors would be less likely to look at them.

”Victims’ rights have a long way to go in this court, and as soon as possible I will lend my support to that cause,” Rizzo said.

Wolf wouldn’t comment on Rizzo’s criticism, but when sentencing Sampson, he said: “I have made my best effort to give you a fair trial. That required making decisions that I understand were painful to the victims’ families, but which were legally necessary and appropriate.”

In her last chance to address Sampson, Mary Rizzo, Jonathan’s mother, talked about the boy she loved and how she is tormented by the knowledge that Sampson was the last person he saw before he died so brutally. She said she has no desire to watch Sampson’s execution, because people should be surrounded by loved ones when they die, even though Sampson deprived her son of that.

But both her husband and Scott McCloskey said they want to attend Sampson’s execution.

”I know Mary said he should look up and see people who love him,” McCloskey said. “But he’s going to look up and see my face. I want him to know I was there, for what he put us through.”