USA v. Sampson: Judge refuses to be 6th Amendment’s Delilah

Yesterday, United States District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf issued orders overturning the death sentence previously imposed after a jury trial in the District of Massachusetts on the fate of convicted serial killer Gary Sampson (at least temporarily). United States v. Gary Lee Sampson, No. 01-cr-10384-MLW. While my heart goes out to all of the families of Sampson’s victims, especially that of young Jonathan Rizzo, I concur with Judge Wolf’s reasoned decision if for no other reason than it correctly and assiduously protects the procedural safeguards guaranteed to all criminal defendants by the 6th Amendment of the United States Constitution. Under the 6th Amendment, every defendant in a criminal case has the right to be tried by an impartial jury of his peers. Given the gravity of the life or death decision the jury must make in capital cases, there is a greater need for assurances that the jury is, in fact, impartial – that their decision that death is the objectively appropriate punishment is reliable, and based solely upon the evidence adduced at trial. [citation omitted]. Indeed, Judge Wolf noted in his decision:

The Federal Death Penalty Act provides that if even one juror does not find the death penalty to be justified, the defendant may not be executed. [citations omitted]. Therefore, each juror has the power to decide that a defendant will live rather than die. Each juror must be able to make that decision based solely on the evidence, uninfluenced by personal experiences that he or she may have had. The Supreme Court has held that if even one member of a jury that has sentenced a defendant to death was not impartial, that sentence must be vacated. [citation omitted].

Here, Sampson pled guilty to the three brutal and senseless murders he was charged with. Nonetheless, under the Federal Death Penalty Act, a trial was still required to determine whether or not he should be executed. The trial jury found that the death sentence was warranted, but it was later revealed that one of the jurors had failed to disclose that her personal history included armed threats by her (ex) husband and that her daughter had served time in jail in connection with a drug problem. Judge Wolf, one of the most respected, thoughtful and methodical Justices in the District, found that the juror’s intentional and repeated inaccurate answers to juror voir dire questions amounted to a denial of Sampson’s 6th Amendment rights to an impartial jury, in that had those issues been truthfully shared, the make-up of the jury might have been different. Indeed, many potential jurors were not empaneled due to possible bias, and two of the eighteen empaneled jurors were excused during the trial due to revelations of dishonest answers to voir dire questioning. In short, this denial of a Constitutionally mandated right requires a new sentencing trial.

Regardless of what one may or may not feel about the death penalty, there will undoubtedly be many critics of this decision - some will think it a miscarriage of justice, some will think it is a waste of tax-payer funds and judicial resources, and there are valid arguments on both sides. What is not debatable, though, is the integrity of the Criminal Justice System and the inalienable Constitutional rights of anyone who stands accused of even the most detestable and reprehensible of crimes. We are often inclined to take those rights for granted until we need them ourselves, but our singular and collective constitutionally guaranteed liberties and protections have as much of a stake in this case as convicted killer Gary Sampson has. At the end of the day, we may end up with the same decision - Sampson may again face the death penalty - but to arrive at that point by any means that winds up usurping Constitutional safeguards would not only be a violation of Sampson’s rights, but of the U.S. Constitution and our collective interests, as well.

If you have been accused of a crime and you need a lawyer to represent you please contact Brad Bailey at 781-589-2828