Gary Lee Sampson died before his execution; appeals court plans to overturn his murder convictions

Although Sampson never contested his guilt, a federal appeals court decided to consider whether he should overturn his murder convictions due to his pending appeal, a prospect that infuriated the families of the victims.

In a Jan. 7 order, the First Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit told federal prosecutors that they had 14 days to provide “a statement of its position on the effect of the accused’s death on this appeal and the underlying convictions”. The defense then has seven days to respond. Sampson’s attorneys did not initiate the request.

Federal courts and many state courts—though not in Massachusetts—routinely dismiss convictions against deceased defendants before an appeal of their convictions is decided, but not in cases, like Sampson’s, where one defendant admitted guilt and only contested the sentence.

Rizzo’s parents and brother sent letters to court on Friday, expressing pain and anger at the prospect that his killer’s convictions could be expunged from his record.

“I take extreme umbrage and am outraged by your initiation of this request,” Rizzo’s father Mike wrote, adding that he believed Sampson’s death meant he would never have to hear the name again. of Samson. “Now we have to deal with you insulting us by implying that his heinous acts could be removed from the record.”

In an interview, McCloskey’s daughter, Cheryl Shea, said she was confused by the appeals court’s order and felt it reflected more concern for criminals than victims.

“How can they take away the fact that he’s already pleaded guilty?” she asked. “It would be another blow for us. He already got what he wanted, life in prison. Now they’re going to take away the only thing we have left, which is that he’s guilty of killing three innocent people.

The appeals court issued the order after Sampson’s attorneys informed the court that he died Dec. 21 at a federal prison medical facility in Missouri. The defense did not ask the court to overturn his convictions.

In a statement Friday, one of Sampson’s attorneys, Madeline S. Cohen of Boulder, Colorado, said Sampson had “never denied responsibility” for the murders of Rizzo, McCloskey and Robert “Eli” Whitney.

“He pleaded guilty in 2003 and has always supported that guilty plea,” Cohen said. “The lengthy legal process in his case was the result of the federal government’s relentless pursuit of a death sentence, even after Mr. Sampson fell terminally ill before his 2016 trial. Mr. Sampson’s appeal that was during his death does not call into question the legality of his conviction.

A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the case.

But Zachary Hafer, a former assistant U.S. attorney who was part of the team that prosecuted Sampson, said “in nearly two decades of legal proceedings, neither Sampson, nor anyone else, has ever challenged question his guilt, so while I am surprised that this question has been raised, I am confident that Sampson’s convictions will stand.

In 2003, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals overturned the child rape conviction of former priest John J. Geoghan at the request of his attorneys after he was murdered in prison while his sentence was being appealed. was pending. At the time, prosecutors did not contest the claim, saying quashing convictions in such circumstances was common practice that dated back to English common law.

But in 2019, the state Supreme Judicial Court reinstated the first-degree murder conviction of Aaron J. Hernandez, who killed himself in prison while his appeal was pending. The former New England Patriots star was convicted of murdering Odin L. Lloyd in North Attleborough in 2013.

The state’s highest court found that the rule of law relied on by the judge who overturned Hernandez’s conviction was “outdated and no longer commensurate with the circumstances of contemporary life.” He concluded that a verdict of guilty resulting in a sentence “essentially constitutes a final judgment in a criminal case”, even if an appeal is lodged.

In its recent order in the Sampson case, the appeals court cited two federal cases. In one, a court in 2020 refused to overturn the conviction of a Connecticut man for making false statements because he died while only appealing his sentence. In the second case, a federal court in the District of Columbia granted a defense request in 1994 to overturn the embezzlement conviction and sentence of a man who had pleaded guilty to the charge but died while appealing. . her, as well as the sentence.

Sampson, a drifter who grew up in Abington, confessed that McCloskey picked him up hitchhiking in Weymouth on July 24, 2001. Sampson forced him to Marshfield, where he took him into the woods, tied him up and stabbed him 24 times. . McCloskey, a retired gas company worker from Taunton, was a father of six.

Three days later, Sampson was hitchhiking in Plymouth when Rizzo, a student from Kingston, picked him up. Sampson forced the teenager to drive him to Abington, where he tied him to a tree in the woods and stabbed him repeatedly. Sampson drove Rizzo’s Volkswagen Jetta to New Hampshire, where he broke into a vacation home in Meredith. When Whitney, 59, arrived to mow the lawn, Sampson strangled him. Sampson pleaded guilty to a state murder charge for that murder and was sentenced to life without parole.

In 2003, a federal jury in Boston found that Sampson should be sentenced to death for killing McCloskey and Rizzo, but that verdict was later overturned because a juror lied during jury selection. In 2017, a jury found that Sampson should be sentenced to death for Rizzo’s murder, but was unable to reach a unanimous decision on a sentence for McCloskey’s murder. As a result, the judge sentenced him to death for Rizzo’s murder and to life without parole for McCloskey’s murder.

“When will all this stop?” Rizzo’s mother, Mary, wrote in her letter to the appeals court. “Sampson’s blatant and boastful confession to his detailed murder of Jonathan will forever haunt me. He pleaded guilty many times, never asking for forgiveness. He was a bad man. To think that his conviction could be expunged is an insult to our family. Through countless trials and appeals, we have held each other with dignity and now it feels like you are taking another part away from us.

Shelley Murphy can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.

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