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Decision expected to fuel capital punishment drive

Six years ago, the horrific killing of a 10-year-old Cambridge boy named Jeffrey Curley set off a major push for Massachusetts to reinstate capital punishment.

 

Now, the sentencing of Gary Lee Sampson could play the same role that Curley's murder did in 1997. In Sampson, Governor Mitt Romney and lawmakers who favor the death penalty have a convicted killer who committed three cold-blooded murders. They have something approaching the incontrovertible proof of guilt Romney has talked about, in Sampson's confession.

And with yesterday's decision, for the first time in more than half a century, they have 12 Massachusetts residents sending a convicted murderer to death.

"This is not some other state," said Senate Republican leader Brian P. Lees, one of the leading death penalty supporters in the Legislature. "We've got regular men and women who've made this choice. It may make some legislators realize that in cases like this one, that are so egregious, the death penalty should be an option."

Massachusetts hasn't carried out an execution since 1947, and it is one of just 12 states without capital punishment. Romney, elected last year, is trying to bring back the death penalty. He has appointed a council of forensic and legal specialists to fashion a narrow bill that would permit the death penalty in particularly heinous cases and only where science or a confession can establish that there is no doubt as to the defendant's guilt.

Debate continues to rage on whether any death penalty statute can be fail-safe. Moreover, considerable doubt remains over Romney's ability to put together enough votes in a Legislature controlled by Democrats who oppose capital punishment and to overcome politically influential groups, such as the Massachusetts Catholic Conference and the ACLU.

Still, the Sampson case could reshape the debate on Beacon Hill, particularly with Romney ready to use the death penalty as a campaign issue against state lawmakers next year.

In addition, this is just one of several cases in which federal prosecutors have sought the death penalty in a state without capital punishment, meaning that more verdicts like Sampson's are possible.

"It's going to have shock waves," said Thomas M. Hoopes, a Boston lawyer and legal analyst. "It's going to put a lot of pressure on the state level, on the Legislature and on individual legislators."

Lees, of Longmeadow, said he's sure that the Sampson case will be used by death penalty supporters in their argument for bringing back capital punishment. He argues that Sampson would have had the chance to kill again, even in prison, if the federal government had not intervened and brought its death penalty case.

It's not yet clear whether Romney will use the case to his advantage, however. The governor's top aides declined to comment on the Sampson case or its implications yesterday, saying it was a federal matter that did not involve state policymakers.

The ACLU of Massachusetts blasted federal prosecutors yesterday for trying Sampson in federal court specifically to try to have him executed. Sampson was prosecuted under a 1994 law that expanded the federal death penalty to include killings that involved carjackings.

"The decision to bring the death penalty back to Massachusetts was not made by the people of Massachusetts through their elected officials," said Carol Rose, the group's executive director. "Rather, it was made by a handful of federal officials who have sought to impose the death penalty in states like Massachusetts that historically have declined to impose this punishment."

A University of Massachusetts poll conducted last month showed that 54 percent of Massachusetts residents support the death penalty, while 45 percent want to keep it out of the state. A Globe poll in 1996 found 65-percent support for the death penalty in some cases. The recent UMass poll, however, found that 62 percent of residents surveyed didn't think that Romney will be able to craft a fail-safe death penalty statute.

Some death-penalty foes believe the Sampson case is unlikely to shift votes at the State House or influence public support enough that lawmakers are forced to switch their positions. They argue that no matter how gruesome a killing might be, a single case cannot change deeply held moral opposition to capital punishment or guarantee that mistakes won't be made when executions are imposed by the state.

"What the governor's looking for, the perfect machine, is unattainable," said David M. Ehrmann, chairman and president of Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty, which led protests at federal courthouses in Boston and elsewhere in Massachusetts during the Sampson trial.

He added a second argument: "For a great number of people, regardless of safeguards in the system, people are morally opposed to the death penalty."

Sampson's sentence underscores the arbitrary nature of capital punishment in the United States, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C., group that has been critical of capital punishment laws. Sampson has been sentenced to die on two murder convictions, even though Stephen Flemmi has pleaded guilty in federal court to 10 murders yet is allowed to live, Dieter said. "This case was certainly not a referendum on the death penalty," Dieter said. "The hesitancy people feel about the death penalty has nothing to do with the horribleness of crimes. You may have a clear case here, but the system of cases is going to have possible errors and wrongful convictions."

The state death penalty was established in Massachusetts in 1898, and 65 men were killed between 1901 and May 1947, including the famous and controversial 1927 executions of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Through the early 1970s, Massachusetts juries occasionally sentenced people to death, but elected officials at the time refused to carry out the punishment.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled the state's death penalty unconstitutional in 1975. In 1982, voters approved a constitutional amendment authorizing capital punishment, but that too was struck down by the SJC, in 1984. In the years since, Republican governors and the state Senate have endorsed the death penalty, but the issue has died in the House of Representatives.

The closest House vote came in 1997, following the Curley murder, when the bill deadlocked on a rare tie vote. Since then, bills have failed by growing margins in that chamber; the last time it came up, in 2001, it failed by 34 votes.

Romney says he believes he can change votes with a death penalty bill narrow enough to draw support from some who are uneasy with capital punishment.

The 11-member group Romney named in September has met six times so far. It is scheduled to issue a report in early spring, and the governor expects to file a bill based on that report shortly thereafter, said Nicole St. Peter, a Romney spokeswoman.

Yesterday's verdict by jurors in the Sampson case challenges the view that Massachusetts residents would never impose the death penalty.

Some in the state had wondered whether it was possible to find an impartial jury of Massachusetts residents who would endorse the death penalty unanimously, Hoopes said. That view was reinforced in 2001, when a federal jury in Springfield found nurse Kristen H. Gilbert guilty of murdering four patients at a veterans' hospital, but voted 8-4 against capital punishment, deciding instead that Gilbert should spend the rest of her life in prison.

Death penalty supporters argue that the Sampson case dispels the theory that Massachusetts juries are averse to sentencing convicted murders to death. That, when combined with the pressure Romney will put on members of the Legislature with his proposal, could change the way lawmakers view the issue of capital punishment, Lees said.

"Any time you have a high-profile case that brings light on this issue," he said, "it moves some people."

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

admitted killer
Gary Sampson   Gary Sampson
Abington, Mass.
Age: 43
The victims
  Philip McCloskey
Taunton, Mass.
Age: 69
  Jonathan Rizzo
Kingston, Mass.
Age: 19
  Robert Whitney
Concord, N.H.
Age: 58
Audio files
Sampson's background
Gary Sampson tells of a life dotted with alcohol abuse and prison terms.
McCloskey murder
Sampson describes how he murdered Philip A. McCloskey, 69, of Taunton, July 24, 2001.
Rizzo murder
Sampson describes how he killed Jonathan Rizzo, 19, of Kingston on July 27, 2001.
Bank robbery
Sampson describes how he robs banks.
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