The trial of serial killer Gary Lee Sampson began last Wednesday and is currently ongoing at the U.S. District Court in Boston. The issue at stake in this case is not whether Sampson is innocent. He was already convicted of multiple crimes and confessed to the murder of three individuals in 2001. The issue that will soon be decided by a jury is whether Sampson will face life in prison or suffer the death penalty. This is Sampson’s second sentencing trial; he was sentenced to death in 2003, but a witness lied about her relationship to a law enforcement official and a judge ended up vacating the decision.
Margaret McLean—a Boston College business law professor who wrote the book on the trial of Whitey Bulger—attended the proceedings on Monday and had a few words on the matter. “You never know what a jury is going to do,” she began.
“The jury may be sympathetic to the defense’s mental illness argument, but it just as easily might not. Because each individual jury is so unpredictable in death penalty trials, it’s impossible to guess what the verdict might be.”
There is no death penalty in state of Massachusetts, but since Sampson is being prosecuted by the federal government, it is possible that he may have to face corporeal punishment. The prosecutor’s argument rests on the fact that Sampson’s taped confession shows that he was proud of his crimes and does not regret the murders he committed.
“His confession…was eerie,” McLean affirmed. She said that a BC law class that sat in on the trial "was shaken by it.” Since Sampson’s murder by strangulation of 58-year-old Robert “Eli” Whitney was committed in New Hampshire, the state volunteered to carry out his execution.
Moving toward that possibility, the prosecution’s most significant witness this week was William Gregory, who escaped a carjacking and, likely, murder.
He “was a very compelling witness because you could put yourself in his shoes. He was a good samaritan… Sampson ended up putting a knife to his throat… The way he testified, you could almost see the thing unfolding. It was a great direct examination because it was told like a story,” commented McLean.
In his defense, Sampson’s lawyers cited his poor mental health and rough upbringing. They noted that he suffered brain injuries as early as the age of four and struggled with alcohol and substance abuse as a teenager.
On the cross-examination of Gregory, McLean commented that the “defense team for Sampson did a wonderful job… They focused on their theory of mental illness. They did a very nice job asking the witness about how Sampson was very polite and articulate in one instance and in the next instance he was in a crazy rage. And that happened three times.”
If the prosecution prevails in convincing the jury that Sampson should face death, the mental health issue is the issue Sampson’s defense will most likely use to appeal.
Whether someone with mental ailments can be executed by the state has “been a hot issue for the Supreme Court that’s been contested recently,” asserted McLean.
This is further complicated by the fact that, despite the trial being in Massachusetts, Sampson is being charged with federal crimes and thus is eligible for the death penalty in a state that otherwise doesn't allow it.
Regardless of the verdict, which is expected by the end of the month, the decision will be extremely formative for similar cases in the future.
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