By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) – A federal judge in Boston on Wednesday indicated that the upcoming death-penalty trial for an admitted triple murderer will likely remain in Massachusetts, despite defense lawyers’ arguments it will be impossible to seat an impartial jury in the state.
Gary Lee Sampson was sentenced to death in 2003 for murdering two men who picked him up while he was hitchhiking in Massachusetts and later killing a third man after he fled to New Hampshire. That sentence was overturned in 2011 by a judge after it emerged a juror had lied about prior dealings with law enforcement.
Sampson’s lawyers argued the intense publicity surrounding the case and the recent death-penalty trial of the Boston Marathon bomber will make it impossible to seat an unbiased jury in Massachusetts. It is unusual for two death-penalty cases to be held in the same year in the state, where capital punishment is allowed only for federal, not state, crimes.
“At the moment I’m not inclined to order a change of venue but again this is something that will have to be assessed during jury selection,” U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf said during a hearings ahead of the trial, currently scheduled to begin later this year.
Wolf granted a defense request that jurors in the new trial not be told about the prior death sentence.
Federal prosecutors had argued that it was unreasonable not to tell them, suggesting any juror unaware of the prior sentence could figure it out during the trial of a man in custody for 14 years.
“The prospect of trying this a third time would be horrifying,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Zachary Hafer.
Sampson’s case was mentioned frequently in news accounts of the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and potential jurors could easily know the 55-year-old former drifter had previously been sentenced to death, his lawyers argued.
“A lot of the publicity that’s out there contains a lot of inadmissible and prejudicial information,” said defense attorney Michael Burt, asking that the trial be moved to New York or Washington, D.C.
Tsarnaev’s attorneys had also argued, unsuccessfully, that his trial on the 2013 bombing that killed three people and injured 264 should have been moved out of Boston.
Sampson pleaded guilty to torturing and killing Philip McCloskey and Jonathan Rizzo in Massachusetts and Robert Whitney in New Hampshire.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Peter Cooney and Lisa Lambert)