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First Circuit May Hear Gary Sampson Death Penalty Case

In 2003, Gary Lee Sampson was convicted of killing three people in Massachusetts and sentenced to death under a federal carjacking law. Before the execution could take place, however, a Massachusetts federal district court ordered a new sentencing trial based on evidence that a juror had lied during the selection process. Federal prosecutors appealed.

On Wednesday, prosecutors went before a First Circuit panel, arguing that the juror's potential bias is not enough to void Sampson's death sentence, The Boston Globe reports. While questions of jurisdiction were raised, the panel members indicated that they might invoke their authority to hear extraordinary cases under advisory mandamus in order to settle the matter.

Over the course of a week, Sampson allegedly carjacked and murdered three people: 69-year-old Philip McCloskey, 19-year-old Jonathan Rizzo, and 58-year-old Robert Whitney. Sampson told police that after McCloskey picked him up as a hitchhiker, Sampson forced McCloskey to drive to a secluded area at knifepoint. Sampson then allegedly tied his victim up and stabbed him 24 times. Rizzo and Whitney were reportedly executed in a similar manner.

While Massachusetts abolished capital punishment in 1984, Sampson was convicted under a federal law allowing prosecutors to seek the death penalty when a carjacking results in murder. He was sentenced to death in 2003. Sampson was the first person in Massachusetts to be sentenced to die under the federal death penalty law.

Mitt Romney, who was governor at the time, refused to consent to the execution because capital punishment had been outlawed in the state. New Hampshire agreed to conduct the execution in Massachusetts' place. However, before the execution could take place, Judge Mark L. Wolf of the U.S. District Court in Boston ordered a new sentencing trial for Sampson.

The 2011 order was based on new evidence indicating that a juror in the original sentencing trial has lied on a juror questionnaire in an attempt to hide her family's criminal past, the Associated Press reports. The question comes down to whether actual or implied bias was present in the case. While prosecutors downplayed the weight of the juror's deception, the defense thought otherwise. "One juror can make the difference in a matter of life or death," said William E. McDaniels, a lawyer for Sampson.

There's also a question as to whether the First Circuit can hear the case at all. In Schlagenhauf v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that appellate courts can use advisory mandamus to settle important questions of first impression where there's a "substantial allegation of usurpation of power" on the part of the district court. While the scope for the use of mandamus is a bit ambiguous, appellate courts typically use it where significant procedural questions are raised and a clear abuse of discretion has occurred.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark T. Quinvlan argued that the question of juror bias is appropriate subject matter for an advisory mandamus. "I don't think there's any question that this District Court's decision is unprecedented," he said, according to the Globe. "It can open the flood gates" for defendants to appeal other ­decisions, Quinvlan added.

"This is a big game; it's a death penalty case," he said.

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