Gary Lee Sampson May Have 3 Murder Convictions Vacated 1 Month After His Death

A federal appeals court may vacate Gary Lee Sampson's three murder convictions after he died in prison while appealing his death sentence for crimes more than 20 years ago that he confessed to.

Sampson, 62, confessed to a killing spree in New England that occurred during the summer of 2001. Sampson pleaded guilty to the deaths of Philip McCloskey, 69, and Jonathan Rizzo, 19, after he fatally stabbed them when they separately gave him rides while he was hitchhiking in Massachusetts, the Associated Press reported. Sampson also pleaded guilty to killing a third man, Robert Whitney, in New Hampshire.

Sampson was sentenced to death in 2003 but was given a new sentencing trial after a federal judge discovered a juror had lied during jury selection, the AP added.

In 2017, a jury sentenced Sampson to death for the second time in Rizzo's murder. He was in the process of appealing his execution when he died from end-stage liver failure on December 21, 2021, in a Missouri federal prison medical center, according to the AP.

The federal appeals court now needs to decide whether to vacate Sampson's murder convictions because of his pending appeal or leave them in place.

The Boston Globe reported it's a common practice for prisoners to have their convictions thrown out if they died while waiting to hear about an appeal regarding their sentencing. Federal courts and several state courts follow this practice, but Massachusetts does not.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals told prosecutors they had two weeks to give a statement "of its position on the effect of the defendant's death on this appeal and the underlying convictions." The defense then has seven days to respond, The Boston Globe reported.

The victims' families expressed anger at the appeals court's decision to consider vacating the murder convictions because Sampson had already pleaded guilty to the crimes.

"I take extreme umbrage and am outraged at your initiation of this request," Rizzo's father wrote in a letter to the court, according to The Boston Globe. "Now we must deal with you insulting us by intimating that his heinous acts could be removed from the record."

Cheryl Shea, McCloskey's daughter, told The Boston Globe she was baffled by the appeals court considering erasing his convictions.

"How can they take away the fact that he already pled guilty?" she told the newspaper. "That would be another blow to us. He already got what he wanted, life in prison. Now they are going to take away the one thing we have left, which is he's guilty of killing three innocent people."

Sampson's lawyer, Madeline Cohen, said Sampson was trying to challenge his death sentence but never his conviction.

"No one is challenging Gary's conviction," she said Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. "Gary Sampson never denied responsibility for killing Jonathan Rizzo, Phillip McCloskey or Robert Whitney. He pled guilty in 2003 and always stood by that guilty plea."

On July 24, 2001, Sampson took McCloskey into the woods and tied him up before stabbing him 24 times. Three days later, Rizzo picked up Sampson while hitchhiking. Sampson subsequently tied Rizzo to a tree in the woods and stabbed him multiple times, The Boston Globe reported.

After those murders, Sampson drove Rizzo's vehicle to New Hampshire, where he broke into a home and fatally strangled 59-year-old Whitney. The Boston Globe said Sampson pleaded guilty to Whitney's death and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Appeals Court May Vacate Murder Convictions
A federal appeals court is considering vacating the murder convictions of Gary Lee Sampson because he was still appealing his execution when he died in prison last month. The Federal Bureau of Prisons says Sampson, 62, died Tuesday, December 21, 2021. Above, Sampson, center, is escorted into Hillsborough County Superior Court on June 1, 2004, in Nashua, New Hampshire. Jim Cole/AP Photo