A federal jury sentenced the confessed murderer of GW student Jonathan Michael Rizzo to death last month.
On Dec. 23, the jury of nine men and three women read the ruling to a silent and motionless Gary Sampson, who is the first person in more than 50 years to receive a death sentence in a Massachusetts court, the Associated Press reported.
Sampson confessed this fall to killing Rizzo and two other men in separate incidents in July 2001.
The trial revolved around whether Sampson should get death or life in prison.
Michael Rizzo, Jonathan’s father, said the Rizzo family was satisfied with the ruling.
“This ruling doesn’t close a hole in our lives but it brings a sense of justice,” said Rizzo in an interview several hours after the jury’s decision.
Rizzo said his family, including Jonathan’s mother Mary and brothers Nicholas and Elliot, were present at the courthouse to hear the jury’s sentence.
Many members of Jonathan’s Kingston, Mass., community rallied behind the Rizzo family and supported giving Sampson the death penalty, Rizzo said.
“This was a ruthless act by an evil man, and a growing sentiment of fear is evolving in communities,” he said.
Jonathan Rizzo was slated to enter his sophomore year at GW when his body was found in the woods several miles from his home in July 2001.
Rizzo, who was on his way home from work, picked up the hitchhiking Sampson, according to court testimony. Sampson then forced Rizzo to drive him into the woods, where he tied the student to a tree and stabbed him to death.
GW senior Paul Kennedy, a close friend of Rizzo’s who also attended high school with him, said his mother woke him up to tell him about Sampson’s death sentence.
“I didn’t expect this to happen,” Kennedy said.
He informed several members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity, to which Rizzo belonged, of the jury’s decision.
While the decision was somewhat of a surprise, Kennedy said he and other members of the fraternity were pleased with the ruling.
“This was the result I was hoping for, and in a sense it does bring some closure to us,” he said.
While Massachusetts outlawed the death penalty in 1984, prosecutors were able to seek the death penalty for Sampson by trying him under federal law.
U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan said that jurors delivered a fair verdict and upheld their oath to deliver a just ruling.
“A sentence of death is the only appropriate punishment for the crimes that Mr. Sampson has committed,” said Sullivan, as reported by the AP.
Phyllis Goldfarb, a Boston College law professor, said the case could set a precedent for future decisions. She said that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has recently been pushing state prosecutors to use the federal death penalty whenever possible.
“In states that don’t have the death penalty, if the crime committed is both a state crime and a federal crime, he wants it to be tried as a federal crime,” she said.
Goldfarb said the brutality of Sampson’s crimes was one of the reasons that the jury decided on the death penalty.
Following the ruling, Sampson’s lawyer, David Ruhnke, said he would seek an appeal.
“I respect the verdict, but I disagree with it. These are terrible crimes; the victims have suffered terribly,” Ruhnke said, as reported by the AP.
In an attempt to skirt the death penalty during the trial, Sampson’s defense painted a portrait of a mentally unstable man who was insane at the time of the murders.
Ruhnke said that Sampson is still “actively mentally ill” and should not be sentenced to death, according to the AP.
Goldfarb said Sampson’s chances for a successful appeal are “not strong” because he has confessed to the killings.
“There are some arguments remaining with the evidence used in the sentencing phase and some broader arguments about the death penalty in Massachusetts,” Goldfarb said, “but by the virtue of pleading guilty, he has given up most of his chance for success.”