Prosecutors blasted an argument Friday against the federal death penalty by lawyers for admitted killer Gary Lee Sampson that maintains that delays in the legal process for a possible execution amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
In a court document, federal prosecutors used strong language in responding to motions that Sampson’s attorneys have filed in US District Court in Boston challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty.
Among the motions was a defense filing saying the time lag between Sampson’s crimes and a possible execution violates his constitutional rights.
“Sampson finally asserts that ‘waiting in the shadow of death’ itself constitutes cruel and unusual punishment,” prosecutors wrote. “This is a particularly galling claim coming from Sampson, who undoubtedly invoked unimaginable terror in his three innocent victims in the final moments of their lives.”
The anxiety “of waiting for an execution date cannot be avoided in a system of capital punishment,” prosecutors said. “. . . Infliction of such inevitable anxieties does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.”
Although Massachusetts does not have a death penalty, Sampson could be executed in another state if he is sentenced to death in a Boston court under the federal statute.
In the initial defense motion, which Sampson’s lawyers filed in August, they noted that a prior death sentence handed down against him stood for several years before it was thrown out and that if he is sentenced to death again, he will probably spend at least another decade on death row.
In that scenario, more than 20 years would have passed between his crimes and his execution date, the motion stated.
The lawyers also wrote that capital punishment in the federal system “entails years of waiting in the shadow of execution that are themselves cruel and unusual punishment.”
They also wrote: “The conditions of death row confinement are equivalent to solitary confinement, but for years on end. This exacts a toll on those so incarcerated that cannot be understated.”
Sampson, 54, formerly of Abington, pleaded guilty in 2003 to the carjacking murders of Philip McCloskey and Jonathan Rizzo in Massachusetts in 2001, and he later admitted to killing Robert “Eli” Whitney in New Hampshire. He was sentenced to death in 2004.
But that sentence was officially vacated in May 2012, after a judge found that a juror had lied during a screening process. Prosecutors are again seeking the death penalty. A sentencing retrial is scheduled for February.
Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.