BOSTON (AP) — A lawyer for a man who could face the death penalty for carjacking and killing two Massachusetts men told jurors Wednesday that his brain "has been broken for a very long time," but a prosecutor insisted his brain was his "most powerful tool" in the killings.
The contrast was drawn during opening statements in the sentencing retrial of Gary Lee Sampson, a drifter who pleaded guilty in the carjack killings and the strangulation of a third man in New Hampshire during a weeklong crime rampage in 2001.
Sampson was sentenced to death in 2003, but a federal judge granted him a new sentencing trial in 2011 after finding that one of the jurors at his first trial had lied about her background.
Sampson's lawyer, William McDaniels, urged the jury at his retrial to spare Sampson's life and instead sentence him to life in prison. He said Sampson has struggled with traumatic brain injury since the age of 4, when he fell down a flight of stairs, and has received at least a dozen head injuries during his life.
"There's no excuse or justification that Gary Sampson offers for the loss of these valued human beings — these were terrible crimes. There nevertheless is a context of how he came to be where he was in the last week of July 2001," McDaniels said.
Sampson was a 41-year-old drifter and career criminal when he returned to his hometown of Abington — about 25 miles south of Boston — from North Carolina, where he was wanted in a string of bank robberies. He confessed to carjacking and killing Philip McCloskey, a 69-year-old retiree, and Jonathan Rizzo, a 19-year-old college student, as well as the killing of Robert "Eli" Whitney in New Hampshire.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dustin Chao told the jury that Sampson used a pocket knife and a nylon rope to kill his victims, but also used his brain to persuade his victims to give him a ride, to steal their cars, and finally, to convince them he would not kill them. Sampson wore a conservative button-down shirt, slacks and dress shoes — a "murder outfit" he later admitted wearing so that his victims would let down their guard and trust him, Chao said.
"He outsmarted them all, he outwitted them, he manipulated them," Chao said. "He got them to believe that if you follow my instructions, you will live."
The victims' families listened quietly and watched as prosecutors showed smiling photos of their loved ones. One woman sobbed softly.
Prosecutors also showed photos of Sampson taken just after his arrest, when he is wearing a muscle shirt and appears physically fit. Sampson looked unrecognizable sitting at the defense table with his lawyers, who said he is now morbidly obese and has a host of health problems, including Hepatitis C, end-stage liver disease and diabetes.
McDaniels told the jury Sampson tried to turn himself in before his crime rampage, but his call to the FBI was disconnected while it was being transferred to an agent. After the crimes, he called 911 in Vermont to surrender.
"I'm out here hurting people and stealing and I can't take it," Sampson said, according to a transcript of the call shown to jurors.
McDaniels said Sampson's brain damage affected his behavior before the crimes, during the crimes and since then. He told jurors they will have to decide if "justice and mercy support killing a brain-damaged man."
Since Sampson has pleaded guilty, the new jury will only be asked to decide his punishment.
Massachusetts abolished the death penalty in 1984, but Sampson, now 57, was prosecuted under federal law, which allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty when a murder is committed during a carjacking.
In an attempt to counter the defense claims, Chao focused on Sampson's mental state, repeatedly describing how Sampson chose victims who were Good Samaritans, and were willing to give him a ride and trust him.
"In their last moments, Gary Lee Sampson had the power of life and he took it. In their last moments, Gary Lee Sampson had the power of mercy and he had none," Chao said.
Jurors also heard an audio recording of the first part of Sampson's confession. Sampson describes his life, including years spent in and out of jail, drug and alcohol use, and several failed marriages.
He said he returned to his hometown of Abington with the intention of assassinating the chief of police there, but couldn't find him and decided to get out of town. After walking about 15 to 20 miles, he decided to hitchhike, he said. That's when he encountered McCloskey.
"I stuck my thumb out and an old man picked me up in a van," he said.
Testimony is set to resume Thursday.