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Federal appeals court will decide whether to get involved in Gary Lee Sampson death penalty case

Gary Lee Sampson pleaded guilty to  killing three people in a series of carjackings in 2001 and is the first person to be sentenced to death for a crime committed in Massachusetts in more than 50 years.

JULIA MALAKIE/Associated Press/File

Gary Lee Sampson pleaded guilty to killing three people in a series of carjackings in 2001 and is the first person to be sentenced to death for a crime committed in Massachusetts in more than 50 years.

A federal appeals court panel indicated Wednesday that it may use its authority to weigh in on the case of Gary Lee Sampson, the serial killer who was the first person sentenced to death by a federal court in Massachusetts and the first sentenced to execution for a crime committed in the state in more than a half century.

At issue is whether Judge Mark L. Wolf, who was then chief of US District Court in Boston, should have ordered a new sentencing trial for Sampson after ruling in 2011 that a juror who was involved in the original sentencing trial had lied about her past, possibly tainting the jury’s verdict. Prosecutors appealed the decision.

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William E. McDaniels, a lawyer for Sampson, argued that the issues involved in the case were serious and that “one ­juror can make the difference in a matter of life or death.”

Assistant US Attorney Mark T. Quinlivan argued that the questions about the juror’s potential bias should not be enough to void the jury’s final decision for a death penalty.

“At the end of the day . . . Gary Lee Sampson was entitled to a fair trial,” he said. “There was neither actual or implied bias . . . and that should have been the end of it.”

Sampson, now 53, had been sentenced to death by a jury in 2003 after he pleaded guilty to killing two people in Massachusetts in a series of carjackings in 2001. He also killed a third person in New Hampshire.

“I think what we’re concerned with here is whether there was an actual bias,” said Senior US Circuit Court Judge Bruce M. Selya.

In the federal courthouse in Boston, the three-member panel of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit had been asked to overturn Wolf’s order for a new sentencing trial, solely to determine whether Sampson should be sentenced to death for the Massachusetts killings.

Family members of Sampson’s victims have called for him to receive the death penalty and lashed out at Wolf’s ­decision to hold a new sentencing trial.

Lawyers in the case had also been grappling with a technical legal issue: whether the ­Appeals Court had the jurisdiction to hear an appeal of Wolf’s decision at all or whether the matter should be settled with a new sentencing trial in US District Court.

But panel members indicated during a hearing Wednesday that, regardless of the legal question, they might invoke their authority to hear extraordinary cases, under what is known as an advisory mandamus, to settle the matter for the courts and litigators in the case, but also for family members of Sampson’s victims, who might have to endure a second sentencing trial.

Quinlivan argued that the panel should decide on the case, because a decision could have an effect on how other courts interpret juror bias.

“I don’t think there’s any question that this District Court’s decision is unprecedented,” he said, adding that “it can open the flood gates” for defendants to appeal other ­cases.

“This is a big game; it’s a death penalty case,” he said.

Sampson killed Jonathan Rizzo, 19, of Kingston and Phillip McCloskey, 69, of Taunton in Massachusetts in July 2001. He then killed Robert “Eli” Whitney of Penacook, N.H., in what prosecutors have called a bloody, weeklong rampage.

Though Sampson pleaded guilty, he contested the death penalty, and a jury ultimately decided on the sentence.

In the years after, however, lawyers handling Sampson’s ­appeal found that one of the ­jurors had lied on a questionnaire.

The juror did not report that she had once been threatened with a gun and that she had a daughter who had a history of drug abuse and had been sent to jail before.

Wolf ordered the new trial, saying that he would have excused her from the case if he had known about the risk of ­bias.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@
globe.com
. Follow him on
Twitter @miltonvalencia.

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