updated 12/23/2003 8:51:42 PM ET 2003-12-24T01:51:42

A drifter who admitted carjacking and killing two men during a weeklong crime spree was condemned to die Tuesday by a federal jury — the first death sentence handed out in Massachusetts in 30 years.

The man, Gary Sampson, 44, was condemned for the 2001 murders of Philip McCloskey, 69, and Jonathan Rizzo, 19. He pleaded guilty in September to stabbing them several days apart, after each man had picked him up hitchhiking.

The jury’s decision is a recommendation, and a judge must formally impose the sentence. A hearing is scheduled Jan. 29.

Massachusetts, one of the nation’s most liberal states, abolished capital punishment in 1984 and has not executed anyone since 1947. The last time anyone was sentenced to death in Massachusetts was in 1973.

Special federal provision
Prosecutors pursued the Sampson case under a 1994 federal law that allows the death penalty for a murder committed during a carjacking.

The victims’ families hugged one another and whispered in approval as the recommended sentence was announced.

Rizzo’s father, Michael, said he believed justice was served, but he added: “We’re not going out celebrating anything here. We’re still talking about taking someone’s life.”

Sampson also confessed to killing a third man — Robert “Eli” Whitney, 58, in Meredith, N.H. — that week, and he faces charges in New Hampshire.

Sampson’s was only the second case in modern times in which federal prosecutors sought the death penalty in Massachusetts. In the previous case, jurors instead sentenced nurse Kristen Gilbert, convicted in 2001 of killing four patients at a veterans hospital in Northampton, to life in prison.

Sampson’s lawyer, David Ruhnke, said he would appeal. “Of course we’re disappointed,” he said.

Activists cry foul
Death penalty opponents decried the sentence, saying federal officials ignored the will of Massachusetts voters and lawmakers.

Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said federal officials were seeking to “impose the death penalty in states like Massachusetts that historically have declined to impose this punishment.”

Because Sampson pleaded guilty, the jury was asked to decide only whether he should be sentenced to death.

Prosecutors portrayed Sampson as a ruthless killer who preyed on Good Samaritans. He surrendered in Vermont after carjacking another man, who jumped out of his vehicle and ran away after Sampson pulled a knife.

In trying to save Sampson’s life, his lawyers focused on a call Sampson made to the FBI in Boston the day before he killed his first victim, McCloskey. He said he called to turn himself in because he knew he was on the edge. At the time, he was wanted in connection with five bank robberies in North Carolina.

The call was accidentally disconnected by a clerk, and FBI agents never went to pick up Sampson, as he requested.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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