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Gary Lee Sampson died before execution; appeals court considering vacating his murder convictions

“To think that his conviction might be wiped away is an insult to our family,” said the mother of one of the victims.

Gary Lee Sampson was escorted into Hillsborough County Superior Court in Nashua on June 1, 2004.Jim Cole/Associated Press

Gary Lee Sampson confessed decades ago to a weeklong killing spree in the summer of 2001. He told police that after Philip McCloskey, 69, and Jonathan Rizzo, 19, picked him up hitchhiking on the South Shore on separate days, he stabbed them to death and stole their cars. He drove to New Hampshire, where he broke into a home on Lake Winnipesaukee and strangled another man to death.

Sampson pleaded guilty in federal court two years later to killing McCloskey and Rizzo and carjacking and after a lengthy legal battle, was sentenced to death — for a second time — in 2017. But Sampson was still appealing his execution when he died in prison last month at age 62.

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Although Sampson never contested his guilt, a federal appeals court has decided to consider whether to vacate his murder convictions because of his pending appeal, a prospect that has enraged the victims’ families.

In a Jan. 7 order, the First Circuit Court of Appeals told federal prosecutors they had 14 days to provide “a statement of its position on the effect of the defendant’s death on this appeal and the underlying convictions.” The defense then has seven days to respond. Sampson’s lawyers did not initiate the request.

Federal courts and many state courts — although not in Massachusetts — routinely dismiss convictions against defendants who die before an appeal of their convictions is decided, but not in cases, such as Sampson’s, where a defendant had admitted guilt and was challenging only the sentence.

Rizzo’s parents and brother sent letters to the court Friday, expressing pain and anger over the prospect that his killer’s convictions could be erased from his record.

“I take extreme umbrage and am outraged at your initiation of this request,” wrote Rizzo’s father, Mike, adding that he believed Sampson’s death meant he would never have to hear Sampson’s name again. “Now we must deal with you insulting us by intimating that his heinous acts could be removed from the record.”

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In an interview, McCloskey’s daughter Cheryl Shea said she was baffled by the appeals court’s order and felt it reflected more concern for criminals than victims.

“How can they take away the fact that he already pled guilty?” she asked. “That would be another blow to us. He already got what he wanted, life in prison. Now they are going to take away the one thing we have left, which is he’s guilty of killing three innocent people.”

The appeals court issued the order after Sampson’s lawyers notified the court that he died Dec. 21 at a federal prison medical center in Missouri. The defense did not ask the court to vacate his convictions.

In a statement Friday, one of Sampson’s lawyers, Madeline S. Cohen of Boulder, Colo., said Sampson has “never denied responsibility” for the slayings of Rizzo, McCloskey, and Robert “Eli” Whitney.

“He pled guilty in 2003 and always stood by that guilty plea,” Cohen said. “The lengthy legal proceedings in his case resulted from the federal government’s relentless pursuit of a death sentence, even after Mr. Sampson became terminally ill before his 2016 resentencing trial. Mr. Sampson’s appeal that was pending at his death does not challenge the legality of his conviction.”

A spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office in Massachusetts declined to comment on the case.

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But Zachary Hafer, a former assistant US attorney who was part of the team that prosecuted Sampson, said that “in almost two decades of court proceedings, neither Sampson, nor anyone else, has ever questioned his guilt. So, while I am surprised that this issue has been raised, I am confident that Sampson’s convictions will stand.”

In 2003, the Massachusetts Appeals Court erased the child rape conviction of former priest John J. Geoghan at the request of his lawyers after he was murdered in prison while the appeal of his sentence was pending. At the time, prosecutors didn’t contest the request, saying vacating convictions in such circumstances was routine practice that dated back to English common law.

But in 2019, the state Supreme Judicial Court reinstated the first-degree murder conviction of Aaron J. Hernandez, who committed suicide in prison while his appeal was pending. The former New England Patriots star was convicted of murdering Odin L. Lloyd in North Attleborough in 2013.

The state’s highest court found that the legal rule cited by the judge who vacated Hernandez’s conviction was “outdated and no longer consonant with the circumstances of contemporary life.” It found that a guilty verdict resulting in a sentence “essentially constitute a final judgment in a criminal case,” even if an appeal is taken.

In its recent order in Sampson’s case, the appeals court cited two federal cases. In one, a court refused in 2020 to dismiss a Connecticut man’s conviction for making false statements because he died while appealing only his sentence. In the second case, a federal court in the District of Columbia granted a defense request in 1994 to vacate the embezzlement conviction and sentence of a man who had pleaded guilty to the charge but died while appealing it, as well as the sentence.

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Sampson, a drifter who grew up in Abington, confessed that McCloskey picked him up hitchhiking in Weymouth on July 24, 2001. Sampson forced him to drive to Marshfield, where he walked him into the woods, tied him up, and stabbed him 24 times. McCloskey, a retired gas company worker from Taunton, was a father of six.

Three days later, Sampson was hitchhiking in Plymouth when Rizzo, a college student from Kingston, gave him a ride. Sampson forced the teenager to drive him to Abington, where he tied him to a tree in the woods and stabbed him repeatedly. Sampson drove Rizzo’s Volkswagen Jetta to New Hampshire, where he broke into a vacation home in Meredith. When Whitney, 59, arrived to mow the lawn, Sampson strangled him. Sampson pleaded guilty to a state murder charge for that slaying and was sentenced to life without parole.

In 2003, a federal jury in Boston found Sampson should be sentenced to death for killing McCloskey and Rizzo, but that verdict was later overturned because a juror lied during jury selection. In 2017, a jury found Sampson should be sentenced to death for Rizzo’s slaying but was unable to reach a unanimous decision on a sentence for McCloskey’s slaying. As a result, the judge sentenced him to death for Rizzo’s slaying and life without parole for McCloskey’s murder.

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“When will all this stop?” Rizzo’s mother, Mary, wrote in her letter to the appeals court. “Sampson’s blatant and bragging confession of his detailed murder of Jonathan will forever haunt me. He pleaded guilty over and over, never once asking for forgiveness. He was an evil man. To think that his conviction might be wiped away is an insult to our family. For countless trials and appeals we stood with dignity and now it feels like you are taking away another piece of us.”


Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.