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Aug. 31, 2001

Hearing infuriates kin of Sampson’s victims

Families oppose attempt to overturn death penalty

Jonathan Rizzo, the son of Mike and Mary Rizzo (pictured at their Kingston home), was killed by Gary Lee Sampson in 2001.

Globe File Photo

Jonathan Rizzo, the son of Mike and Mary Rizzo (pictured at their Kingston home), was killed by Gary Lee Sampson in 2001.

Editor’s Note: The article is form the Globe archives. It originally ran on Aug. 31, 2010, the day after a hearing was held to determine if convicted killer Gary Lee Sampson was entitled to a new trial in order to reconsider his death penalty sentence.

The families of two men whom Gary Lee Sampson admitted killing in Massachusetts assailed a court hearing yesterday to determine whether he deserves a new trial, and one relative accused the judge of trying to find a way to prevent Sampson from being executed.

Mike Rizzo, whose son, Jonathan Rizzo, a George Washington University sophomore from Kingston, was fatally stabbed by Sampson in July 2001, said it was “very disappointing and disheartening” that US Chief District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf began holding the hearing.

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”I think a big part of this is Judge Wolf is not in favor of the death penalty and is trying to get the judgment vacated,” Rizzo, 57, chief information officer of Boston Financial Data Services, said after the proceeding in US District Court in Boston ended for the day. “I just think it’s hard for him to sign a death warrant, and I think he’s doing anything he can to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

Another relative, Scott McCloskey, 47, of Plymouth, called the hearing “a big waste of time” during a break. His father, Philip McCloskey, 69, of Taunton, was stabbed to death three days before Rizzo, after giving Sampson a ride in his car in Weymouth. “We should all be going down to watch his execution,” McCloskey said.

Wolf presided over Sampson’s federal trial and imposed the death penalty in January 2004, the month after the jury recommended that he be the first man executed for a crime in Massachusetts since 1947. The jury had rejected defense arguments that Sampson had a mental illness or brain damage that was a mitigating factor.

But Wolf scheduled the hearing in response to a 155-page motion by Sampson’s new legal team, which contends that Sampson’s constitutional rights were violated because his trial counsel were ineffective.

Wolf angered some relatives after the trial by saying that he believed Sampson was indeed mentally ill, but he did not give his personal view on the death penalty. He said at the start of yesterday’s hearing that he was seeking to “strike some balance between the need for this case to progress and my usual desire to get it right.”

Sampson’s lawyers argued that his trial counsel failed to give the jury a full picture of his history of mental illness and traumatic brain injuries, which they said would probably have discouraged jurors from recommending the death penalty.

Sampson, of Abington, had pleaded guilty to the murders, leaving the jury only to decide whether he should be executed.

”There was a lot of evidence that the jury didn’t hear, which they should have heard,” William E. McDaniels, a Washington lawyer, told Wolf.

Among the 18 points in Sampson’s current appeal is that defense lawyers never presented evidence that he fell down a 10-foot staircase when he was 4, suffering a head injury that required treatment at Brockton Hospital. The fall in 1964 was among a series of traumatic head injuries that Sampson had as a child that caused permanent brain damage, his new lawyers said. The verdict might have been different if jurors had seen several medical records, including the one from Brockton Hospital, they said.

”This is a person who was mentally ill, had brain dysfunction ... but the jury rejected it, and the jury rejected it because of lack of corroboration,” said McDaniels.

But Assistant US Attorney John A. Wortmann Jr., one of four prosecutors appearing before Wolf, said Sampson had capable trial counsel who presented a full picture of their client and might have withheld evidence for strategic reasons. “They made reasonable, appropriate decisions,” Wortmann said.

Another assistant US attorney, George W. Vien, also parried arguments by Sampson’s new legal team that his trial lawyers made a halfhearted effort to get members of Sampson’s family to testify about his troubled childhood, testimony, his latest lawyers say, that would have corroborated statements about brain damage and mental illness.

Vien said Sampson’s trial lawyers - Stephanie Page, Robert L. Sheketoff, and David A. Ruhnke - tried to get Sampson’s parents and other family members to testify on the defendant’s behalf, but “the parents didn’t want anything to do with this case.”

Wolf said he will consider each argument separately and issue a written decision after the hearing. But in a tentative ruling, he rejected prosecutors’ request to summarily dismiss the contention that Sampson’s trial lawyers were ineffective by failing to present the Brockton Hospital records to jurors.

Sheketoff, who did not participate in the hearing, said in a telephone interview that it was “wholly appropriate” for Sampson’s new legal team to focus on the quality of his defense. To get the death sentence vacated, he said, “really the only basic avenue available is to accuse the prior counsel of ineffectiveness.”

Sheketoff declined to discuss specific aspects of the defense but said it was possible that he and the other attorneys for Sampson made errors.

”I don’t care how good you are; sooner or later, you’re going to make a serious mistake,” he said. “Why should someone pay for that with their life or a conviction?”

Sampson also committed a third murder three days after he killed Rizzo. He strangled Robert “Eli” Whitney, 58, of Penacook, N.H., in a house that Whitney had been tending for an elderly woman in that town. Sampson pleaded guilty to state murder charges in New Hampshire.

Almost all murder cases are tried in state courts. But Michael J. Sullivan, the former US attorney, charged Sampson with the two Massachusetts murders under a federal law that lets prosecutors seek the death penalty for some 60 offenses, including carjacking resulting in murder. Sampson commandeered the cars of his two Massachusetts victims.

Sampson is in federal prison and did not attend the hearing, although he was allowed to, according to the US attorney’s office.

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