BOSTON (AP) — The families of two Massachusetts murder victims listened to weeks of gruesome testimony about how a hitchhiker carjacked them, tied them up, stabbed them and slit their throats.
Gary Sampson was sentenced to death for his crimes. But 15 years after the killings, his victims’ families will have to hear the grisly details again as a new jury is asked to decide if Sampson deserves the death penalty.
Sampson’s death sentence was thrown out five years ago, and jury selection for a new sentencing trial is set to begin Wednesday in U.S. District Court. Sampson pleaded guilty to the killings, so the new jury will be asked to decide only whether he should get life in prison or the death penalty.
“It’s difficult to reopen that stuff all over again and have to sit there and listen,” said Michael Rizzo, whose 19-year-old son, Jonathan Rizzo, was killed by Sampson.
Sampson was a 41-year-old drifter and career criminal when he went on a weeklong crime rampage in July 2001. He left North Carolina, where he was a suspect in a string of bank robberies, and returned to Abington, a town about 25 miles south of Boston where he grew up.
His first victim was Philip McCloskey, a 69-year-old retired pipefitter from Taunton who picked Sampson up while he was hitchhiking. Sampson later told police he assured McCloskey he only wanted to steal his car, but then tied him up with a belt and stabbed him 24 times.
Next came Rizzo, a 19-year-old college student who gave Sampson a ride after leaving his summer job at a Plymouth restaurant. Sampson told police he tied Rizzo to a tree, stabbed him repeatedly, put a gag in his mouth and left him to die in the woods behind a restaurant.
Sampson was convicted separately in New Hampshire in the murder days later of Robert “Eli” Whitney, a former Concord city councilor.
Massachusetts abolished the death penalty in 1984, but Sampson was prosecuted under federal law. He was sentenced to death in 2003, but that was overturned in 2011 by a judge who found that one of the jurors had lied repeatedly about her background.
Sampson’s sentencing retrial is expected to last about three months and to include testimony similar to his 2003 trial. Prosecutors are expected to again cite the cruel nature of the killings, Sampson’s planning and premeditation and McCloskey’s age and vulnerability.
This time around, prosecutors are also hoping to use Sampson’s prison disciplinary record to argue that he is likely to be violent in the future, another potential aggravating factor. Prosecutors say Sampson has violently assaulted multiple prison officials and made verbal threats to officials and inmates.
Sampson’s new lawyers have submitted a list of 217 mitigating factors they want to use to argue against the death penalty, including their claim that Sampson suffers from traumatic brain injury caused by several falls as a child and is mentally ill.
“The heinous, cruel, and depraved manner of the killings shows there was something wrong with Gary,” Sampson’s lawyers wrote in court documents.
Sampson’s lawyers also cite his poor health. Sampson, who will turn 57 later this month, is morbidly obese and has high blood pressure, hepatitis C and advanced liver disease.
Since Sampson’s first trial, the number of death sentences imposed by states has decreased significantly, dropping from 151 in 2003 to 49 in 2015, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In 2015, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was the only defendant sentenced to death under federal law, compared with two defendants in 2003, including Sampson.
Experts attribute the shift in attitude to high-profile exonerations and wrongful convictions.
“There is far, far less enthusiasm for the death penalty than there has been in a very long time,” said George Kendall, a defense attorney who has represented clients in death penalty cases since 1979.
Rizzo, the victim’s father, said he hopes the new jury will also sentence Sampson to death.
“If you do something that qualifies for the death penalty, then you should be prepared to take that consequence,” he said.