A federal trial is scheduled to end this week for the confessed murderer of GW student Jonathan Michael Rizzo.
After a nine-day break for Thanksgiving, a Massachusetts federal jury began to hear arguments in defense of Gary Sampson, who will either get the death penalty or life in prison for the killings of Rizzo and two other men in July 2001. The trial started earlier this fall.
Samantha Martin, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts, said she is unsure how long it will take the jury to hand down its sentence once the trial ends.
Members of the Rizzo family said they have been dissatisfied with the trial.
Michael Rizzo, Jonathan’s father, described the legal proceedings as not being “victim-friendly.”
“The focus of the case is on protecting the defendant, and the victim has few rights,” Rizzo said.
He said the trial has increased awareness of Jonathan’s murder in his hometown of Kingston, Mass.
“It was always not far out of our consciousness, but this brings it to the top,” he said.
Rizzo added that community members have been supportive of the family throughout the trial, even driving his two sons, Nicholas and Elliot, to sports practices while he and his wife are in court.
If jurors decide to sentence Sampson to death, he will be the first person to receive the death penalty in Massachusetts since 1984.
In September, Sampson confessed to the carjacking and killing of 19-year-old Jonathan Rizzo, Phillip McCloskey and Robert Whitney in separate incidents.
Rizzo, who was scheduled to enter his sophomore year at GW, was found dead near Abington, Mass.
According to court testimony, Rizzo was driving home from work when he picked up Sampson on the side of the road. Sampson then forced Rizzo to drive into the woods, where he killed him.
In an effort to avoid the death penalty for their client, Sampson’s lawyers are alleging that he was insane at the time of the murders, the Associated Press reported.
Jill Miller, Sampson’s social worker, was called to testify by the defense and painted a portrait of a mentally unstable alcoholic and drug user, the AP reported. The defense hopes this description will serve as a “mitigating factor” that will help Sampson escape a death sentence.
While a death penalty verdict would not bring his son back, Michael Rizzo said it would be an appropriate punishment for what Sampson did to Jonathan.
” It will give me some better sense that there is justice in the world, which is what we’re really after,” he said.
Senior Paul Kennedy, a close friend of Jonathan Rizzo’s who also attended high school with him, said he favors the death penalty for Sampson because Rizzo’s killer should not be allowed to live.
“This makes me know the reason that they have the death penalty,” Kennedy said.
He said members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity, to which Rizzo belonged as a freshman, have been paying close attention to the trial.
“The members of the fraternity have been following it closely and it’s difficult to read about it in such an unaffecting way,” said Kennedy, the fraternity’s former president.
Kennedy said it has been difficult for Rizzo’s friends to follow the defense lawyers’ efforts to save the life of the man who murdered their friend.
“There’s no doubt of the guilt of this person, but everyone is trying to protect him,” he said.
Kennedy said that while he has never forgotten about Rizzo, the trial has rekindled feelings of anger and loss.
“After this happened, for about two years, there was a lull,” he said. “But this is forcing everyone to think again.”