By all accounts, Gary Lee Sampson was quick to confess to five bank robberies, and carjacking and killing three people in 2001, including 19-year-old Jonathan Rizzo.
“He told us that killing that young kid was nothing but cold-blooded, premeditated murder,” Michael Crisp, a retired State Police major who investigated Rizzo’s death, told a federal jury in Boston Wednesday.
But on the first day of Sampson’s second sentencing trial, prosecutors and defense attorneys disagreed on the motive behind the confession, a distinction that could make the difference between life and death.
During opening statements, defense attorneys argued that Sampson wanted to take responsibility for his crimes and assist prosecutors, who had not found Rizzo’s body by then.
But, prosecutors told the jury that the confession was meant to glorify what he had done.
“You’ll hear one thing that is unmistakable — he was proud of his crimes,” Assistant US Attorney Dustin Chao said.
Sampson, 57, a drifter from Abington, faces the death penalty for the carjacking and killing of Rizzo and Philip McCloskey, a 69-year-old from Taunton, within days of each other in July 2001. Sampson then killed 58-year-old Robert “Eli” Whitney in New Hampshire that same week, strangling him with a rope.
Sampson admitted to the crimes in a 90-minute taped confession that was played in part for jurors Wednesday, and defense attorneys say the confession shows he felt guilt. He also said in a 911 call in Vermont before his arrest: “I’m sick and I need to stop this.”
Massachusetts does not have the death penalty, but Sampson is being charged with federal crimes that allow for capital punishment. A jury agreed to sentence him to death in 2003, but a judge vacated that decision because one of the jurors lied during jury selection. Prosecutors decided to seek the death penalty again.
William E. McDaniels, one of Sampson’s lawyers, said in his opening statements that expert witnesses will testify that Sampson suffered brain injuries — as early as age 4, when he fell down stairs — that have affected his mental health. Sampson had a tough upbringing, he said, and Sampson’s teachers said he was withdrawn and dyslexic at age 7, and he abused alcohol and drugs as a teenager.
“His brain has been broken for a very long time, since childhood,” McDaniels told jurors.
Sampson, who wore leg shackles that could not be seen by the jury, at one point during McDaniels’s presentation ripped his tie off and placed it under the table in front of him.
McDaniels said Sampson’s crimes could not be excused, but said his condition was a reason to reject the death penalty.
But Chao, in his opening statements, called Sampson smart and conniving. His victims were innocent people who offered to help him. Rizzo was a college student who was working at a restaurant; McCloskey was a retired plumber. Whitney was a handyman who had gone to help the widow of a friend when Sampson attacked him.
Sampson tricked Rizzo and McCloskey into giving him rides, then directed them at knifepoint to secluded areas, where he stabbed them to death.
Each time, he dressed like a businessman. “He knew it would get them to lower their guard,” Chao said.
Sampson attempted to carjack and kill a fourth person in Vermont, William Gregory, but Gregory jumped out of his moving car and fled. Sampson broke into a nearby home, but the alarm went off. He then called police.
“He makes it sound like he is surrendering because he needs to stop, it’s time to stop,” Chao said, referring to the confession in the 911 call. “But he had his murder kit, he had his murder clothes on, and he had his murder victim in a car just an hour ago,” he said.
Crisp, the State Police major, said authorities traveled to Vermont by helicopter to retrieve Sampson and bring him back to Massachusetts to face charges. At the State Police barracks, Sampson described his upbringing and how he had a “very violent, angry attitude as a young man.”
He discussed two failed marriages, his drug and alcohol addiction, and a life of crime that took him to North Carolina — where he said he robbed several banks — and back to Abington. One day, in July 2001, he walked to nearby Weymouth, where he decide to hitchhike.
“I stuck my thumb out and an old man picked me up in a van,” he said.
It was McCloskey, a father of six.
Outside the courthouse Tuesday, relatives of Sampson’s victims say they are prepared to endure another trial.
“It’s hard for all of us, we’ve been through all of this 13 years ago and we have to go through it again,” McCloskey’s son, Scott, told reporters.
Michael Rizzo, Jonathan’s father, added that the trial brings “just a flood of memories coming back . . . the words are still horrible to hear, and to listen to what happened, it wears on you.”