Lawyers for a man who confessed to carjacking and killing two men in Massachusetts and killing a third man in New Hampshire argued Wednesday that the federal government should not force the death penalty on Massachusetts, a state that has rejected capital punishment.
Gary Lee Sampson was sentenced to death in 2003 by a federal jury in Boston for the two carjack killings, but that sentence was overturned eight years later by U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf, who found that a juror's lies about her background deprived Sampson of his right to an impartial jury.
Sampson's lawyers have filed a series of motions challenging the constitutionality of the federal death penalty.
Massachusetts abolished its state penalty in 1984; Sampson was prosecuted under a federal statute.
Wolf heard arguments on several motions Wednesday, but did not immediately rule. The hearing was scheduled to continue Thursday.
Sampson, a drifter who grew up in Abington, pleaded guilty in the 2001 killings of Jonathan Rizzo, 19, a college student from Kingston, and Philip McCloskey, 69, a retiree from Taunton. He confessed to carjacking the men, then stabbing them to death after assuring each of them that he only planned to steal their cars.
Sampson was convicted separately in state court in New Hampshire in the killing of Robert "Eli" Whitney during the same weeklong crime spree.
Sampson's lawyer, Danalynn Recer, argued Wednesday that the federal government should withdraw its notice that it intends to seek the death penalty against Sampson because it violates "evolving standards of decency in the community."
"The community has rejected it and decided that it's not going to have the death penalty," Recer said.
But Michael Warbel, a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, said the federal government has the legal authority to seek the death penalty in states that have rejected state capital punishment.
Warbel said the argument that Massachusetts residents have rejected the death penalty is "refuted by the verdict in this case." He also cited a Boston Globe poll in July in which 62 percent of respondents supported U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to seek the death penalty against Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Tsarnaev's trial is scheduled to begin next month in U.S. District Court in Boston.