Staff Editorial: Balancing Justice

He murdered 19-year-old GW student Jonathan Rizzo and two other men in a multi-state New England crime spree. He confessed to the crimes and has shown no remorse. He is unrepentant and definitely guilty. Gary L. Sampson is the perfect candidate for execution.

But Massachusetts, the state where Sampson killed Rizzo and 69-year-old Phillip McCloskey, has no death penalty. Instead of trying him in state, state prosecutors are transferring the case to federal court as a means to secure an execution.

Individual state officials are attempting to circumvent the will of the people and the laws of Massachusetts. Sampson should not be executed – although he richly deserves that consequence for his heinous actions – because the laws of Massachusetts do not provide for that punishment.

The state of Massachusetts has decided repeatedly not to reinstate the death penalty after a national hiatus, which began in 1973. Most recently, a vote in the state legislature in March defeated a bill to reinstate the death penalty.

There is no provision for murder in federal law unless that murder occurs on federal property, against a federal official or while the victim is engaged in a federally protected activity such as voting. Murder is and always has been a state crime. But state and federal prosecutors want to charge Sampson under the 1994 federal anti-carjacking statutes, which can incur the death penalty.

State officials handing over criminals who commit state crimes to their federal counterparts are blurring an important distinction between state and federal power.

Part of the concept of justice and the rule of law is the idea that laws in effect at the time of a crime cannot be manipulated to fit circumstance or increase a punishment. Massachusetts does not provide for capital punishment. If state officials seek such an outcome, they would ultimately deny justice to the accused in this case and future ones.

While emotionally jarring crimes such as the ones Sampson committed against his victims bring all who want justice to call for severe action, states must uphold the credibility of their legal system first.

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