After 15 years of trials and court proceedings, admitted serial killer Gary Lee Sampson made his first public statement in court Thursday as a jury considers whether to sentence him to death.
He put on his reading glasses, lifted himself from the chair at the defense table in Courtroom 13 of the federal courthouse in South Boston, and addressed the jury in a 45-second statement meant to show remorse for the three murders he committed in one week in 2001.
In 123 words, he noted each life that he took.
Jonathan Rizzo, a 19-year-old college student, offered to give him a ride one night that summer. “It hurt me to know I took his life, a life of a young man,” Sampson said softly.
Philip McCloskey, a 69-year-old plumber from Taunton, had picked up a hitchhiking Sampson on his way to Weymouth. “I took his life and destroyed his family. I hurt his family and so many more,” Sampson said, stumbling over his words.
Later, he killed 58-year-old Robert “Eli” Whitney in New Hampshire. “I destroyed another family for no good reason,” Sampson said.
Sampson, who is now 57 and suffering from obesity and several other ailments, wore a sport coat and a dress shirt. His statement came at the close of the day. He looked toward the jurors who will decide his fate, and they stared back, showing no emotion. Mary Rizzo, Jonathan’s mother, grew tearful in the front row of the courtroom gallery.
“I’m sorry for the harm I caused,” Sampson said finally, looking down before taking his seat.
Sampson’s death penalty trial is the second in Massachusetts in two years, but a profound rarity nonetheless. Until Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death in 2015 for his role in the Boston Marathon bombings, Sampson had been the only person sentenced to death in Massachusetts since the 1940s.
That decision, in 2003, was overturned after a judge found that a juror lied about her background during a screening process. He has pleaded guilty to the crimes, but a new jury must decide whether he will get the death penalty.
Massachusetts’s court system has not had a death penalty since the state’s courts struck the punishment down in the early 1980s. The last executions in the state were of gangsters Philip Bellino and Edward Gertson on May 9, 1947, for the murder of Robert Williams, a former US Marine.
But Sampson, a drifter from Abington, has been charged with federal crimes that allow for capital punishment, including carjacking resulting in death, and over the last two months prosecutors have portrayed him as a vicious killer who preyed on those who were weaker than him. Rizzo was leaving his summer job when he stopped to give Sampson a ride on a Friday night. Sampson directed him to woods at knifepoint, where he tied him up and brutally stabbed him.
McCloskey was heading to meet a tax preparer in Weymouth when he stopped to give Sampson a ride, and he, too, was brutally stabbed. Sampson then broke into a home in New Hampshire where he met Whitney, a maintenance man. He strangled him.
Sampson attempted to carjack and kill a fourth man who escaped in Vermont. He then turned himself in and confessed to the crimes.
He was convicted in 2003 and has been imprisoned on death row in Terre Haute, Ind.
Over the last month during Sampson’s new sentencing trial, defense attorneys have sought to show that Sampson had a troubled upbringing, and had abused drugs and alcohol. He also suffered repeated head trauma and falls as a child, causing brain injury and, according to his lawyers, a mental illness that prevented him from controlling his behavior. Several witnesses also testified that Sampson was sexually abused, though he has lashed out in court proceedings that the testimony was a lie, according to evidence introduced Thursday.
Sampson’s words in court Thursday are expected to be the last the jurors will hear in the case before lawyers make closing arguments, scheduled for Jan. 4. They will then began deliberating his sentence — either death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
US District Judge Leo T. Sorokin told jurors that any defendant in any criminal case is entitled to an allocution — a chance to address the court before sentencing — but Sampson’s case was unusual in that he was allowed to directly address the jury.
His statement was not given under oath, was not considered evidence, and could not be cross-examined. He spoke from his defense table, in part because he wears leg shackles, which the jury has been prevented from seeing.
Legal analysts point to only two similar federal cases in recent years, including one that was handled by one of Sampson’s lawyers, Michael Burt. In that case, for the murder of a child in Hawaii, Burt’s client escaped the death penalty after making a statement to jurors.
But legal analysts have said that such statements can be a gamble, because jurors will judge not only his words, but also his sincerity.
After his statement Thursday, Sampson was escorted from the courtroom by US marshals.
Rizzo’s father, Michael, said outside the courtroom that he found the statement offensive.
“I don’t believe him for a minute,” he said. “It’s all about what’s good for him, and what’s good for him now is for the jury to spare his life, so none of us places any value on what he said.”