Federal appeals court rules that serial killer facing death penalty should get new sentencing hearing

A federal appeals court has ruled that serial killer Gary Lee Sampson’s death sentence should be vacated and a new hearing should be held to determine whether he should be executed for the spree in which he killed three people.

Upholding a ruling by a district court judge, the First US Circuit Court of Appeals said, “we conclude — as did the district court — that the death sentence must be vacated and a new penalty-phase hearing undertaken.”

The appeals court said Sampson deserved a new hearing because a juror had been dishonest during voir dire before the sentencing portion of the trial. In the voir dire process, jurors are questioned to determine whether they are suitable to sit on a case.

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“This case is a stark reminder of the consequences of juror dishonesty. Jurors who do not take their oaths seriously threaten the very integrity of the judicial process. The costs, whether measured in terms of human suffering or monetary outlays, are staggering,” a three-judge panel of the appeals court found in a decision written by Justice Bruce Selya.

Sampson was sentenced to death in 2003. He was the first person sentenced to death by a federal court in Massachusetts. The last executions by the state of Massachusetts were in May 1947, and the death penalty was abolished under state law in 1984, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

“We are disappointed in the decision. Over the next several weeks, we will meet with the victims’ families and review our options. We remain committed, however, to seeing that justice is done in this case,” said US Attorney Carmen Ortiz.

In federal death penalty cases, a special hearing is held before a jury once the trial is completed to determine whether the death sentence is justified.

Judge Mark Wolf, who was then chief of US District Court in Boston, ordered a new “penalty-phase” hearing for Sampson after ruling in 2011 that a juror in the original hearing had lied about her past, possibly tainting the jury’s verdict. Prosecutors appealed the decision.

Sampson killed Jonathan Rizzo, 19, of Kingston and Phillip McCloskey, 69, of Taunton in Massachusetts in July 2001. He then killed Robert “Eli” Whitney of Penacook, N.H., in what prosecutors have called a bloody, weeklong rampage. Sampson pleaded guilty but contested the death penalty.

In the years after, lawyers handling Sampson’s appeal found that one of the jurors had lied on a questionnaire. The juror did not report, among other things, that she had once been threatened by her husband with a gun and that she had a daughter who had a history of drug abuse and had been sent to jail before.

Wolf ordered a new “penalty-phase” hearing, saying that he would have excused her from the case if he had known about the risk of bias.

“Few accouterments of our criminal justice system are either more fundamental or more precious than the accused’s right to an impartial jury. That right is threatened when — as in this case — juror dishonesty occurs during the voir dire process yet is not discovered until well after final judgment has entered on the jury’s verdict,” the appeals court said in today’s decision.

The court said the juror had told a “litany of lies” and in light of her “willingness to lie repeatedly, her fragile emotional state, her past experiences ... and the similarities between those experiences and the evidence to be presented during the penalty-phase hearing, any reasonable judge would have found that the cumulative effect of those factors demonstrated bias.”

“Thus, the defendant was deprived of the right to an impartial jury and is entitled to a new penalty-phase hearing,” the court said.

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